The Panel of the Lions

«Why has no one ever shown me this before?» is a question I have asked myself several times during the time I have studied Art History. I have come across paintings that have stirred me up so much that I feel like a completely different person when I manage to detach my eyes from them. These paintings go round and round in my head, when I wash the dishes, when I feed my cats, when I turn off the lights and remain in the dark.  One of them is the reason for this entry: The Panel of the Lions from the Chauvet Cave.

The Panel of the Lions in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France, discovered in 1994

The Chauvet cave (also known as Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave) is located in the Ardèche region of southern France and was discovered in 1994. There are hundreds of beautiful engravings and paintings distributed in all sectors of the cave. These include geometric shapes, handprints and more than 420 representations of animals. The average age of the works is 32,000 years and the artists belonged to the Aurignacian culture [1], from the Upper Paleolithic period.

Before proceeding to the analysis of the painting, I would like to emphasize the fact that it is located in a cave. Paleolithic artists did not have a fancy art studio equipped with a desk, lamp and paper. In order to create their works, they bravely ventured into a very hostile world ruled by darkness, silence and cold. If you have ever had the lights go out in your house at night, and you have had to look for candles or flashlights (I’ll award you a gold star if you were taking a shower), you will understand that, at least for a few seconds, the world becomes a completely different place. Suddenly, all the shapes you thought you knew become unfamiliar and even dangerous if, for example, your little toe makes an acquaintance with the corner of a table. In order to move, you have to reach out, touch the walls, touch the furniture, try not to step on the cat, find a safe place to set your candle. Obviously, this comparison is a little bit ridiculous because the context is very different. We are not in an ice age, we are not in a cave, we are not being chased by a lion. However, I’m using this example because the key to understanding this painting is in the light… or in the lack of it.

This is a picture of one of the cave walls, a few meters away from The Lion Panel

In the same way we light a candle, Paleolithic folks used fire to guide them in the dark. Just as we stretch out our arms so as not to trip over a table, Paleolithic artists stretched out their arms and touched the rock. Try to imagine tracing your fingers over the cold rock and feeling all the cracks and crevices, as well as its protuberances and different textures. Imagine moving forward in the cave, with dark, menacing figures all around you, appearing and disappearing with the movement of the flames. When we look at the painting, we see a fixed image; we see it from the outside. However, with the help of the flickering light projected by the flames, the suggestive shapes of the rock, and the effects of the extreme cold and silence, the artists were inside the representation.

Now let’s talk about the painting itself. In parietal art, large herbivores (such as bison) are quite common, while felines are seen in smaller numbers. Still, a hunting scene as the one depicted in The Lion Panel, located at the end of the cave, is unique in Paleolithic art. We can observe, on the right, a pride of lions chasing a group of bison, on the left. I find it interesting that the lions seem to move from right to left in two parallel lines- to trace them, take note of the position of the heads on the panel and the direction of their gazes. The bison, on the other hand… are all huddled together. The lions have their jaws tensed and their gazes fixed on their prey, and the bison can do nothing but try to run away. (Something distressingly similar occurs when my cats hear me open a can of tuna and the one who goes into “bison mode” is me).

Although the complete body of the animals was not depicted, the realism that the artists achieved with this painting is remarkable. By realism, I mean representing nature through imitation. The figures show very precise anatomical details, such as the jaws of the lions or the horns of the bison. Furthermore, the artists used various techniques to create the illusion of volume and depth. Among them, we can discern that, before drawing the animals, the artists scraped the rock, which gave the surface various tonalities. Doing this not only smooths the surface of the rock, but it also helps the animals to «emerge» from the background, making the drawing much clearer. We can also see that some strokes are much sharper than others, and that in some areas the artists blurred the pigment. This is an ideal technique to achieve volume in a painting.

In this segment we can see, in white, the previous scraping done on the rock.
In this picture we can see the blurring of the pigment. Notice how the lighter areas are around the eye and nose of the bison

One way to represent movement in a painting is through repetition. In this case, we see the lions’ heads one after the other. We may not see their full body, with their four legs and pretty tails dancing in the air, but the repetition of heads in the same line, as well as the dramatic tension in their faces and necks, gives us the impression that the felines are moving, not standing still.

However, there is one exception to all this movement, and it is my favorite part of the panel. If we pay close attention, we’ll find a lion cub facing his mom, nose to nose, in the center of the panel. Neither one of them seems to be interested in the hunt. Instead, they are completely engrossed in each other: the lioness is turning her back to the bison; the cub has his eyes closed. The cub has a placid, docile expression, and its form is very soft, especially compared to the larger lions. Funny, isn’t it? Such a quiet, tender moment in the midst of the hunt.

The lioness (left) and the cub (right)

I wouldn’t dare to say that the artists wanted to represent a scene of maternal love because, although there are many theories about parietal art, there is no way to know exactly what they were thinking or what their intention was with this painting… or any painting, really. What I don’t think is too risky to say is that the artists represented their surroundings based on very careful observations. They took into account all the characteristics that made up an animal, from its hunting methods to its social structures and personality.

The reason I chose this painting, why it shakes me up so much, is that it seems to be a cry breaking up the darkness. I think that when someone makes a work of art, any work of art, with any intention, they are saying, «I am a person, I am here». However, the Paleolithic artists not only affirmed themselves as subjects, they also worked with an (almost) timeless medium- the rock. If you look at the strokes, the scraping, the blurring, doesn’t it seem like the artists wanted to say that the idea of the animal already existed in the dark? That they didn’t really create it, but only made it visible with their fire?

If you would like to take a virtual tour of the cave, you can do so on this page:

All of the images belong to that site; I highly recommend you visit it.

If you are interested in prehistoric art, as well as the relationship between aesthetics and evolution, I recommend the book The artful species (2012), by Stephen Davies.

[1] Aurignacian culture: The Aurignacian period extends from 43,000 to 35,000 years BP. The Aurignacians were Homo sapiens, anatomically modern humans. They used tools such as scrapers and razor blades and also made personal ornaments and musical instruments.

Original version: Translation is mine ❀

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