Sixteen years ago I noticed a small advertisement on the side of a shelter that I presumed was a bus stop on the outskirts of Foix in the South of France near the foothills of the Pyrenean mountains. On closer examination I discovered there was a cave about twenty miles away and further into the mountain region. So I thought it a good idea to explore but the main attraction was the promise of seeing art painted by what was described as primitive man. It was an opportunity not to be missed so, unable to decipher a gnomic bus timetable, I decided to take a taxi directly to the cave. On arrival I found what one might expect from such beginnings – a large open cave entrance. There were four or five people milling around and after a short wait about a dozen of us descended into the depths of the earth wearing helmets with fixed torches.
Our journey down took some while, perhaps half an hour although my memory of this is sketchy but when we finally arrived in the vast blackness of the main cave I became aware of a world that had hitherto existed only in my imagination but now appeared in reality. In unison and on instruction we all turned off our lights to gain another insight into our environment. This was the experience of total darkness that lasted for nothing more than thirty seconds but was enough to maximise a sense of the history of our surroundings. We returned to the assistance of artificial light. From where we stood paintings on cave walls were clearly visible and we were informed that these had been on display for millennia. I gazed in wonder at the antelope and bison but also at the arrows adorning the hunted galloping away from the hunters. T
The uneven rock wall provided ample advantage for showing artistic features in a more realistic setting than a blank flat surface might otherwise achieve. At least this was my occasional impression on walking passed images I had only previously read about. The art of prehistoric man is to almost anything else I have seen. I have been to most of best art museums in London and Paris and nothing matches the cave paintings. If I had once taken the opportunity of visiting the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and witnessed the medieval art of Michelangelo in Rome it is possible I would find an equal exemplary art. For those who argue that this is the 21st century – as if there is something better about being further down the line of human existence – for them, consider this; consider that the human spirit exemplified in art has its finest examples not in our contemporary world, not in modern art, not in a culture and society that considers scientific advances to be the measure of a nation and its people, but in paintings from about five hundred years ago to the art of many thousands and thousands of years back.
Has the spirit of man advanced in all the time we have been on this planet?
From what I can gather the most beautiful expression of the human spirit in art – since primitive man – is that which has been created within the context of a Christian culture especially with regards to the paintings and sculpture of Michelangelo, Bernini, and the spectacular imaginative portraits created by Caravaggio, Raphael, and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. By comparison our modernity, our modern world, is seen to be what it really is: dull yet entertaining, routine yet distracting, arrogant, vain, self-seeking, self-serving but above all unable to express what is greatest in man and that is his superlative examples of creative art and spirit. We have lost what is most precious. We have lost our faith, and worship science instead. We glory in what man has created and not in what has created us. We consider the views of those who appreciate art not for its artistic merit, but for its financial and market worth. If man was once ‘the measure of all things’ then contemporary art measures him exactly. Fortunately, however, it is a measure of his spirit not his worth under God, which through faith, transcends all things. Even art.
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