VISITING THE CHAUVET CAVE BY JOHN ROBINSON
We had been in the cave now for three hours. It was time to leave and have some much needed lunch. I was glad to take a break as my head was in a whirl. Later we would return and descend into the Holy of Holies, the Sorcerer’s Sanctuary.
We soon arrived back at the bottom of the shaft, clipped on to the safety harness, climbed up the ladders, and crawled back up the tunnel. Boots on we stepped back into the real world, to be met by the cameras again.
"First impressions please". Well what do you say? There are really no words that can encompass such an amazing experience. All I did know was that I was very glad that I had avoided looking at the photographs for a year. Apart from the sheer artistry of the work, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the freshness of what I had just seen. The cave paintings could have been done yesterday, not 30,000 years ago. I had been completely blown away, and I was glowing with the wonder of the accomplishment of my fellow artists, and feeling, very humble.
The sun had burst through the veil of swirling mist that had filled the valley in the morning, so we had a glorious view across the canyon. What an incredibly beautiful spot. The Chauvet Cave Clan must have had the same feelings about the site, and felt the Spirit of Place. Their cave paintings are in tune with the values we hold today, so surely their values of beauty must have been the same as ours as well.
I felt very close to these people, even though 30,000 years separated us. The Greek philosopher Protagoras said some 2,500 years ago; "Man is the measure of all things". If he was talking about Man’s Creativity as being the Measure of Value, as I believe he was, then this is just what I had seen, wonderful Creativity, and incredible Feats of Imagination.
I believe that the Genesis of Art is Religion. I don’t believe that these paintings were just a "one off" miracle of creativity. The beginnings of the long path of evolution that led up to these paintings must have been rooted in the ancient religion of Homo sapiens.
In the afternoon I was to be taken into the Holy of Holies to see the Sorcerer and the panel of the Lions and Rhinoceros. I had already experienced the sense of being in a Cathedral on my journey to the Bear Skull Altar, so what, I wondered, would be my reaction to the Sorcerer?
Lunch was a truly French affair. Several three foot long baguettes of crusty bread, sausage, cheese, lentils, and of course, red wine. While I listened to Jean and David Lewis-Williams discussing various aspects of the cave, I thought how fortunate we all were to be alive, at the right time, and at the right place. The Cave Paintings of Chauvet are the great find of the century, the living witness to the dawning of Homo sapiens culture through the legacy of his art.
Jean arrived beside me and we set off back down the plastic path towards the Horses. Knowing what was coming I started to look ahead as we passed the cave-in and the Owl. Soon I could make out the dark forbidding portal of the Chauvet Cave Sorcerer’s chamber. The entrance to the Holy of Holies could not be more impressive if it had been built by man. Looking up from the calcite floor, situated right in the middle of the end wall of the cavern, is a great black hole.
We stepped up onto the grey clay floor and followed the plastic path into the jaws of the tunnel. To the left was the Rhinoceros with the black belt; while to the right was the red line drawing of the extinct Megaceros. They appeared to be the guardians of the sanctuary, like the spitting Cobras of Egyptian tombs. The floor continued to rise for a few yards, and then suddenly started to fall away, and I found myself looking down the dark throat of a narrowing tunnel into a black void. My helmet light was lost in the depth of the almost straight passageway to the Underworld.
Panel of the Lions
Click photograph for enlargement
Walking forward we came to a 3 foot drop, and then another steeper one, where we had to sit and slip down on our rumps, before arriving on to the floor of a large and long chamber.
Jean turned me around to look at the left-hand wall. Great Lions fill a panel, two black and one red, superimposed on each other. They were staring into the dark cave ahead of us. We moved slowly forward and then suddenly there was the Pride of Lions. They are majestically magnificent. The intensity of the gaze of the animals staring straight back at us said only one thing, "All those who enter here, Beware". They were ready to spring, daring us to approach the Inner Sanctum. I was quite speechless.
Click photograph for enlargement
I took out my binoculars and studied the Sorcerer. The lens intensified the light and made the figure leap into life. I was in the presence of a Deity living on Earth. He radiated a ferocious pagan power. I could not keep thinking that surely I was looking at the original source of the Greek legend of the Cretan Minotaur.
How did the artist reach the rock cone to do this cave painting? Certainly some kind of scaffolding must have been used. The same thing applies to the Lion and Rhinoceros panels as some of the cave paintings extend so far up the wall, they are well out of reach of a six foot high man.
Pulling my mind away from the religious connotations, I turned the glasses to study the Lions. Again the glasses intensified the images making them even more menacing. The line and shading of the cave paintings is awesome. A magnificent work of Art.
The whole canvas is nearly 30 feet long, and spread across a magnificent water worn smooth wall of ochre shades. A large Bison to the left of the panel is painted as though it is coming out of the wall, only the front half of the giant beast shows.
Beneath the Bison is a real oddity, a baby Mammoth with enormous feet. What is it doing here? It seems out of place in the over all design of the panel.
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