It came to be called the Chauvet Cave (after one of the explorers), and what was found inside was the oldest known artwork (by far) made by human beings. Hundreds of paintings of over 13 different species of animals including horses, bears, and even rhinoceroses were carbon-dated to be more than 30,000 years old. Some of them were drawn in such a way that torchlight still creates the illusion of animation. An eight-legged bison appears to be an absurd aberration until, under the right lighting conditions, it appears to be running before your eyes.
In 2010, German filmmaker Werner Herzog made the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was granted unprecedented yet highly restricted access to this extraordinary place, and the result was one of the most profound explorations of human nature I have ever encountered.
Herzog’s film and the Chauvet Cave phenomenon taught me much. One lesson is this: It seems the paintings were retouched over centuries, and some up to 5,000 years apart. Whatever value these images had to the Ice Age people of prehistoric France, they were assumed to be relevant over a vast expanse of time. They were precious possessions to be cared for. The paintings scream out a message of beauty in continuity. They reflect a sacrosanct cultural order that was highly successful for hundreds of generations in instilling its values via the representation of the world outside the walls of the cave.
My friend and editor Zachary Guiliano recently wrote a wonderful reflection on order and beauty in which he reminded us that “our age is undoubtedly allergic to even the word order.” Imagine how many artistic movements and innovations there have been in the last century, let alone the last 5,000 years. Beauty is assumed to be something that moves on from one generation to the next. And since the mid-20th century, the artistic elite have had an increasingly strained relationship with order as an essential element of beauty. When a Jackson Pollock painting sells for $200 million, the world reflects a completely different understanding of beauty and a completely different value of art as a means of imparting cultural continuity than the proto-Frenchmen of Chauvet. Disorder infects our souls and our institutions, and it has been happening for a long time.
The effect of moving further away from a particularly ordered beauty in cultural continuity has come to logical quandaries recently. Do we even have common criteria for what a man or a woman is? Or a human being in general? Contrast with Chauvet: No people who celebrate their common life in front of the same (touched up) cave paintings over the span of thousands of years have any confusion about who they are (helped no doubt by the fact these humans could contrast themselves with nearby Neanderthals). Ice Age men and women of the Ardèche may have been primitive versions of us, but they were far more secure in their identity than we are. The prehistoric person did not imagine himself the definer of his own nature. The artists and admirers of the cave paintings of Chauvet succeeded in life by being what they were made to be.
Beauty in continuity is the biblical vision of God’s design for us. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:1-2). Our God, who creates out of nothing, orders his work into beauty that reflects his glory. At each stage of the ordering process, more goodness is revealed. More truth about God’s nature and his loving plan for creation is known. And in the rightly ordered creatures called human beings, the very image of God is visible. Beauty is of the essence of reality, and our first ancestors were made its stewards. The Fall introduced disorder and ugliness to reality. God’s victory in Jesus (and us) is renewing, reordering, rehabilitating: beautifying and defeating chaos. Just think of the precise details of the descent of the heavenly city in Revelation 21. Imagine then an eternal destiny of singing with the angels — taking our part, touching up the cave painting, if you like. We live in the timeless tableau of the Good News of God. We add to it, and yet never change it.
Plato demonstrates in his famous “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic that once you leave the cave, you can’t simply go back. The direct light of the sun redefines the shadowy reality that the cave people once knew as normal. Accordingly, praising the ancient Chauvet community for its commitment to beauty in continuity is not a call to retreat into hiding. In fact, the cave-dwellers that Plato imagines are prisoners in chains. But Ice Age people did not even live in caves, let alone live in bondage to ignorance of the world outside. The Chauvet cave was like a church — a sanctuary from the world that simultaneously made sense of the world and to which the people inevitably returned. Beauty, in a millennia-long order, served as the hub of community life.
The modern soul needs a message of beauty in continuity, and has needed it for a long time. In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the hot-blooded eldest brother, Dimitri, speculates on beauty from a position of extreme chaos embedded in a destructive filial continuity. His soul is an utter mess, and he stands out as a caricature of Romanticism. He tries to quote Schiller’s Ode to Joy to describe the “storms in [the] blood” that he has inherited from his debauched father. Dimitri, like all of us, suffers from original sin, which widens the discontinuity between God’s ordered beauty and our pale substitutions. He concludes his impassioned rant to his brother, Alyosha:
Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies — did you know that secret? (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 108, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)
Perhaps Dimitri is right. At any rate, his 19th-century words speak to timeless problems. “Sin is behovely,” as the Lady Julian reminds us. And yet, an instinct for true, divine beauty remains within us. Standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta makes it nearly impossible to shift appreciation over to Pollock’s Number 17A. Heaven suddenly contrasts with Sodom, and we may even dare to imagine a way to encounter Heaven more directly: “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says. When we consider the extraordinary continuity of the ancient creators and curators of the Chauvet cave, it does not feel as though we’ve been following Jesus’ command to “do this” for so very long. But among us who “do this,” a strong sense of beauty in cultural continuity ought to prevail. To “do this” is to acknowledge that we are in Sodom but that the beauty we experience in it comes from Heaven. To “do this” in perfect continuity with our spiritual ancestors is to receive the gift of God’s ordering of reality, which could not be more beautiful.
We have much to learn from the cave and its people.
Fr. Andrew Petiprin is rector of St. Mary of the Angels, Orlando. His other Covenant posts are here.