Last year at this time I was blessed to see the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I had read about and seen photographs of Michelangelo’s masterpiece for years, but this was my first in-person viewing. I sat, head raised, and marveled at his genius. And yet, I was strangely, and disturbingly, unmoved by the experience.
Now, a year later, I am in Lascaux II in the Dordogne region of southwest France. This isn’t the original cave, which has been sealed up to spare the images from bacteria and mold. And yet, Lascaux II was a work of many years, using the same materials and replicating the shape and texture of the cave within a centimeter of the original. As our guide traverses one of the cave’s corridors, lit torch in hand, the animals flicker and pulse before my eyes. My breath catches as I feel myself tumbling back in time.
Seventeen thousand years ago our Cro-Magnon ancestors scribed a series of animals onto the the walls of underground caves all around an area known as the Dark Perigord. Lascaux, the most magnificent, was referred to as the Sistine Chapel of cave art by one of its discoverers. It is certainly one of the most astonishing visions from prehistory.
The people who painted these images didn’t live in these caves, which were too closed off for fires to burn safely for any length of time. So why did they risk their lives to paint these images? What inspired them? Moved them? Why these images of bulls, and stags, and stampeding horses? Why not any of reindeer, who formed the staple diet of these ancient people and whose supple skin provided clothing and warmth?
And what of the image shown above, of a creature that is part rhinoceros, part bear, part wild cat, with unicorn horns. No animal like this has ever existed that we know of. Did this one emerge from the dream time?
The artistry of Lascaux is extraordinary, as amazing in my eyes as the artistry of Michelangelo. You can even see how the bulges and indents of the cave walls have been used by the artists to bring their figures into three-dimensional life. But what moves me most of all is that only one human figure appears. It is a man with a bird’s head and an erect penis: a shaman.
How different from the wholly human perspective––the white male dominance of the Sistine Chapel. How different from the Renaissance concept in which god is held aloft, perched in Paradise, causing the sacred to be separated from its earthy roots. How different these caves from a world in which man is portrayed as superior to all other creatures.
Perhaps I long for a spirituality that isn’t so grand, so hierarchical, so human dominated. Don’t get me wrong: the Sistine Chapel is beautiful and worthy of our respect, even adoration. But here, in the womb of Mother Earth, is a different kind of sacred art. In looking at these figures, I don’t feel awe for god, but for life itself.