In 1994, a cave was discovered in southern France. Entrance obliterated by a rock slide ages ago, its contents had been left undisturbed and protected from the elements for some 20,000 years. Filmmaker Werner Herzog describes this cave as, “a frozen flash of a moment in time.” In his mesmerizing documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he takes us deep into the recesses of Chauvet Cave.
We enter through a steel door installed to protect the delicate climate within. Our path lit only by a few battery~operated cold light panels, we descend narrow stairs to the first of several large chambers. And here, we get a hint of what is to come. In front of us, a section of wall known as “the red dots” displays a collection of handprints from a single human long since gone.
Traversing 2~foot~wide metal walkways suspended above a bone~littered floor, our gaze touches the shimmering remains of cave bear, wolves, ibex, horses, a golden eagle. Stalagmites, stalactites and draperied concretions like fossilized waves glimmer as well. Archeologist and scholar of Paleolithic culture Dominique Baffier explains that eons of dripping water have created “crystals that glitter… rimstone calcite ridges have covered everything in sparkling formation, a kind of cascade.”
Hauntingly beautiful. Yet this is not why we are here. Chauvet Cave contains some of the best preserved and oldest known cave paintings in the world.
“The paintings looked so fresh,” Herzog explains in his heavily accented German, “that there were initial doubts about their authenticity.” Radiocarbon dating, however, suggests the paintings were created between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.
As we move deeper into the cave, exquisitely executed images dance against the hard surface of the cave wall~~rhinoceros, aurochs, cave lion, bison, mammoth, cave bear, panther, and insects. One exceptionally beautiful panel contains numerous overlapping horses, seemingly in motion, open mouths emitting an almost audible whinny.
“The walls themselves are not flat,” Herzog explains, “but have their own three~dimensional dynamic, their own movement, which was utilized by the artists, (creating)…the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film.”
The dynamic beauty of the artwork, the dim torch~like lighting, the evocative background music~~all these bring us a palpable sense of the holiness of this place. There seems no doubt that these long~ago people opened to Spirit here.
Herzog’s interview with one unidentified man elucidates two interconnected concepts that give us a glimpse into the spirituality of the people of Chauvet Cave. “Fluidity,” he explains, “means that the categories that we have~~man, woman, horse…tree~~can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers…between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us or a wall can accept us or refuse us.”
While few in our modern world believe that a human can literally become a bear, I suspect our experience of spirituality is not so very different from the painters of Chauvet. A wall teeming with sacred art viewed in the darkened light of a cavern deep within the earth still opens us to awe.
French archeologist Julien Monney tells the story of an ethnographer traveling with an aborigine through the Australian outback. Coming upon some decaying rock art, the native man immediately began restoring it. The ethnographer asked him why he was painting. The aborigine answered, “I am not painting. This is my hand, only my hand. It is Spirit who paints.”
All of life interconnected, fluid and permeable. Energy, like an underground river moving through it all.
Quantum physics now confirms this. Early humans already knew it. We all do, at least when we stand open and in awe.
In awe and in love,