Images without stories. That is how the cave paintings at Lascaux appear to me—depictions of animals which sadly we have not the contextual, mythographic framework to understand. I think it must be like trying to understand Greek pottery art without the writings of Homer or Hesiod, or stumbling upon Egyptian hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The context-less images at Lascaux remind me to be grateful for the stories and legends still preserved for us today—many by a single manuscript—which serve not only to inform our conceptual understanding of art, but also, as our cultural inheritance, challenge us to become better people. As St. Bernard of Chartres remarked, “we are but dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and farther than the ancients.”
And without writing, the medium by which stories are preserved, we would be but dwarfs on the ground, who like Dante find ourselves lost in a dark wood, unable to find the true path by ourselves. And as Virgil served to guide Dante, who will guide us through the dark, obscure caves of Lascaux? If only someone had written down (and remained preserved) the ‘tale of the upside-down bull’ or ‘the legend of the swimming stags’ or my favorite ‘the unicorn errant’, then might we understand why these images appear in the cave and what philosophical and theological significance they bore in the daily lives of the people that carved them.
It strikes me as little wonder then why Plato makes the injunction to artists to preserve the ancient stories and myths that comprise our cultural wisdom. Speaking of Solon, a man who once knew of Atlantis, Plato writes (via the mouth of Critias), “I wish, Amynander, that he [Solon] hadn’t treated poetry as a spare-time occupation but had taken it seriously like others; if he had finished the story he brought back from Egypt, and hadn’t been compelled to neglect it because of the class struggles and other evils he found here on his return, I don’t think any poet, even Homer or Hesiod, would have been more famous” (Timaeus). For Plato the poet is revered for the power of his story and the cultural relevance it has upon proceeding generations who might benefit from ancient wisdom.