Lascaux Cave: The Prehistoric Sistine Chapel

WORLD HISTORY |

The cave of Lascaux in the Dordogne, discovered in 1940 and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979, are masterpieces of parietal art. To protect the paintings, the cave has been closed since 1963. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty images)

In the southwest corner of France, there is an impressive cave complex, the Lascaux Caves, that wasn’t discovered until about 78 years ago. When 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends, Simon Coencas, Georges Agnel, and Jacques Marsal, entered the cave system on September 12, 1940, they were stunned to see thousands of prehistoric cave drawings painted on the rock walls. It turns out that the Lascaux Caves are home to some of best Paleolithic cave art ever found. And a lot of it, too. It seems that sometime about 17,000 years ago, a prolific artist or group of artists adorned much of Lascaux Caves with their work, leading the caves to have been dubbed the Prehistoric Sistine Chapel. Let’s look at some of the astonishing art that has been found in the cave. 

Horses Were a Favorite Subject Matter

The vast majority of the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux are animals. These are so detailed and so well-painted that it is easy to clearly identify the species. Of the 900-plus animal drawings, about one-third is of horses. Horses seemed to be one of the favorite subjects for the ancient artists. The vast majority of the horses are painted in action, running or walking. 

The Great Hall of Bulls

Bison and cattle are another popular topic for the prehistoric painters. In fact, one of the largest and most publicized chambers of the Lascaux Caves is the Great Hall of Bulls. In this room, extraordinary cave murals show bulls, horses, ibex, and deer. Dominating the scene is the four black bulls, also called aurochs. One of the aurochs is the cave complex’s largest painting, measuring about 17 feet in width. 

What’s Not Painted…Reindeer

Of all the animals that were painted in the Lascaux Caves, experts were surprised that there are no depictions of reindeer. For Upper Paleolithic Europeans, reindeer would have been a main food source. Instead of reindeer and in addition to cattle, horses, and bison, the cave drawings show a bird, a rhinoceros, and seven cats. 

There is Only One Human…And He’s Dead

In a section of the Lascaux Caves known as the Shaft of the Dead Man is the only drawing of a human among the thousands of paintings. The human appears dead. He is lying on the ground with a broken spear next to him. Before him is a painting of a very much alive bison. The story that one can surmise from the scene is that the human was a hunter who was bested by the bison. 

The Artists Used a Limited Color Palette

The prehistoric artists, whoever they were, were able to paint their masterpieces using paints made from natural sources. This means they had a limited color palette from which to work. All of the images on the walls of Lascaux Caves are in shades of black, red, and yellow. 

The Caves are Closed to the Public

The Lascaux Caves were, a few years after their discovery in 1940, opened to the public. But within less than a decade, the experts studying the Paleolithic art observed that the exposure to the heat, moisture, carbon dioxide and contamination caused by the crowds of visitors were taking a toll on the cave art. The ancient paintings were showing signs of damage. The authorities closed the caves to the general public in 1963. Visitors can tour the adjacent museum and visitors center to see examples of the cave art and recreations of some of the most famous scenes. 

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