Spiritual Meaning in Prehistoric Art?

Examining the iconography of the Lascaux caves, one cannot help but wonder at the organic organization of the figures. Why did the artists depict such a variety of animals, such as horses, aurochs, ibexes, stags and felines? Why did they arrange them in the way that they did? While various archaeologists and others have documented and examined the vast bestiary in the cave, Norbert Aujoulat offers a very persuasive interpretive theory, suggesting that the parietal art in Lascaux has a spiritual meaning.

Aujoulat seems to have arrived at this theory once he had discovered the fixed pattern of the organization of the images. The horses were painted first, followed by aurochs and then stags. This sequence is not random, but actually corresponds to certain seasonal themes. In their elemental organic shapes, each of these figures exhibits certain seasonal attributes: the horses correspond to the spring, the aurochs to the summer and the stags to the autumn. These seasons correspond to the biological mating seasons of the animals. Thus, this prehistoric sanctuary reflects a desire for eternity in the hearts of the artists. The mating season, coming in different seasons for different animals, is the subject of these images. By filling the uncommon, elevated space of the cave wall, the artists have created a sacred space which reverences life through a portrayal of regeneration. In this way, the artists and the viewers of the parietal art are connected not only to nature, but to a sense of timelessness through the constant reproduction of life that comes in each season.

Another important point in the organization of the iconography is the fact that there is such a diversity of animals. The horses are portrayed with their kind, and they have a particular mating season, just like the aurochs and stags and others. Each of these heard animals is often portrayed in a community of its kind (not always, but especially in Le Diverticule Axiale). On the other hand, we find the carnivorous animals such as the felines in more discreet places, as is fitting for their predatory nature. We see then, a certain reverence for the natural order of things.

This reverence for nature is confirmed in the only occurrence of the second type of iconographic depiction: a man, being killed by a bison. The man appears fallen before the bison, and we note that he appears somewhat less detailed than the majority of the animals we have seen. This simplicity of the human form coupled with the victory of nature over man communicates the supremacy of nature and its forces. The simple man is humbled, in a sense, before the power of nature. This idea of humility is not surprising, given that the painter, despite that he had the luxury of art, would certainly have had a deep respect for the power of nature over the life of man. And now, having learned to live in harmony with nature, the man has turned to make art in reverence for the power of nature with which he has learned to live.

While all of our attempts to explicate the iconography of the parietal art are merely that – attempts – we can nevertheless recognize that these figures are in no way randomly organized. On the contrary, there is an organic structure here that bespeaks a longing for regeneration and a respect for the power of nature.


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