A holistic study of Palaeolithic cave art as a traditional art form was long discouraged by positivistic scholars who stressed the diffuse character of the materials. Presently, after more than a century of exploration, studies of Palaeolithic cave decorations can draw on a fund of many thousand images from several hundred caves, and the body of works is now large enough to support a search for narrative and thematic continuity, and thus, to sustain iconographic analysis as an approach to interpretation.
          Iconography, which is a common methodology in the field of traditional art history, proceeds by deconstructing visual compositions, partly in order to isolate individual motifs, partly to detect recurring formal schemes underlying the compilations of figures. The iconographic approach recognizes a universal tendency among visual artists of any given period and region to rely on, not only a number of common motifs, but also a shared arsenal of visual schemes, of which the latter help artists project the implied meaning of the former.
          An iconography for a given era pinpoints formulations that serve as carriers of distinct concepts. In turn, an iconology draws together a representative selection of iconographic analyses in order to outline the scope of the intellectual and emotional concerns shared by the artists of that era, as well as the range of means with which they articulated their ideas.
          An iconology for Ice Age art begins with a simple iconographic study of a specific motif, often a particular animal species, and an evaluation of its character as indicated by typical representations. Subsequently, the study addresses the more complex thoughts implied by configurations of two or more basic motifs, which are, typically, artificial combinations of species that do not actually co-exist in nature. In the case of capital motifs like the horse and the bison, the study first determines the inherent meaning of each motif individually, and then advance to the implications of joint configurations. The latter may show significant visual variety (large horse/small bison, red horse/black bison, etc.), suggesting different conceptual implications. In theory, the number of such juxtapositions is great, but in reality, a limited selection stands out in the cave decorations.
          An iconology for Palaeolithic cave art helps interpretation by identifying the patterns that hold visual motifs together. Thereby, cross-cultural comparisons with images and stories of later, historical traditions no longer rely on specific motifs, that may differ widely over time, but rather on general principles of articulation, that may be shared. This shifts the focus of an interpretation from issues of style to subjects of content.  (January 2016).


Narrative scenes in Ice Age art (revised March 2014)
          Upper Palaeolithic art is old by most standards, but it does not show us the beginnings of mankind’s artistic impulse. If the Ice Age caves represent “the dawn of art” (Chauvet et al. 1996) or “art of the beginnings” (Clottes 2001), then only in the sense that the cave artists’ works already were in agreement with our current definition of “art.” Remnants of much older, still mysterious, artistic practices linger in the artists’ predilection for nature-given shapes, such as a rock formation that resembles the head of a horse, or a pebble that suggests the back of a bison. Occasionally this rudimentary kind of inspiration rises to the fore in cave art, but overall, it plays only a minor role in Ice Age art. As evidenced by the array of narrative and expressive means employed in the cave of Chauvet, which dates back around 35,000 years, the artists who decorated the early caves already commanded a rich repertory of artistic techniques.
        Artists of the Upper Palaeolithic employed their technical means with the same intelligence and sensibility that we may expect from modern artists, and we can not seriously doubt that they, for example, distinguished between figures that are large and figures that are small, between horizontal figures and vertical ones, between colored images and black ones, between groups of uniform figures and groups of varied ones, or between similar images and contrasting ones. Some scholars question whether Ice Age art ever shows narrative scenes and some prefer–like the early explorers in the field–to see most groups of figures as accidental accumulations. This view, however, reflects a cultural bias in the definition of what constitutes a scene; it is also a position that runs counter to the fact–well established in Gestalt Psychology–that we see our surroundings as “shapes,” rather than as elementary parts: we do not see an ear, a paw, and a tail–we see a cat; our vision is confusing, until we connect the dots. This psychological disposition, which certainly was fully developed in Palaeolithic people, implies that they, too, invariably looked for connections in any gathering of images, which is to say that they intuitively read them as scenes. Indeed, Ice Age art abounds in visual associations of motifs (animals, humans, and signs) arranged in ways that make absolutely no sense unless narrative, dramatic, ritual, or philosophical contents are implied. The first step toward interpretation is, then, to establish the nature of scenes in cave art.

The horse and the aurochs cow
          For an exemplary scene with obvious narrative (mythical) contents, we may consider the panel of the black cow in Lascaux (Fig. 1). The huge aurochs cow is superimposed on a file of smaller horses in such a way that the line of horses seems to enter the cow’s body at her front quarters and to re-emerge from her hind quarters. However unfamiliar this arrangement may seem, it begs to be understood as an episode in a narrative. We can not ignore the calculated position of two horses, the first one placed so that its forequarters disappear into the cow’s chest, the other one so that its head and neck emerge from under the cow’s tail. The standard argument against accepting superimpositions as narrative devices is that the uppermost figures could be much more recent than the ones underneath, so much so that the two sets of figures might be entirely unrelated. This objection is wrong, however, because it denies the artists the mental ability to compose an imaginary whole out of disparate elements. It seems unlikely that the (hypothetic) later artists would go to great effort to paint the large cow without giving thoughts to an extensive file of horses already in place; more likely, the superimposition of the cow on the horses was intentional and the resulting accumulation a true composition.
          If we were to dismiss narrative scenes in cave art, we would by the same token eliminate many potential clues to interpretation. In the case of the Lascaux panel, we would have to reject as purely accidental its similarity to the well-known image of a cow in the tomb of the Egyptian king Setis I. This painting (discussed in Chapter I) shows the sky-goddess Nut in the shape of a dark cow, with stars painted on her belly, and with two representations of the sun god superimposed on her figure: the one at her front relates to the concept of Nut swallowing the sun in the evening; the one at her rear refers to her giving birth to the sun in the morning. If we choose to recognize the Lascaux panel (Fig. 1) as an intentional composition, we are, by the same token, acknowledging the correspondences between the two images, and we must consider the possibility that the black cow of Lascaux is the night-sky, and that the horses represent the sun passing through her body. Although similarity does not prove identity, the compatibility of the two scenes encourages pursuit of a promising clue (cf. Chapters IV and V).

Expressive techniques in Ice Age art
          If we assume that the artists of Lascaux, indeed, wanted to illustrate a myth about the celestial cow and the solar horse, then the simplest possible way would have been to juxtapose two drawings, one of a cow and one of a horse; just two heads, one of a cow and the other of a horse, would suffice to evoke a familiar narrative, perhaps even just the head of a cow (for example, the red cow’s head in Castillo). However, any step beyond the minimal representation would enhance the message, and considering that Lascaux is a major cave, that a great amount of work–in fact, a huge effort–went into its decoration, and that the horse is the dominating motif, it is germane that a description of the celestial cow and the solar horse should be more elaborate and employ a wide range of technical resources. Indeed, the artist’s tool chest on display in the panel of the Nave merits comparison with the resources of many historical art forms. At the least, we recognize the following devices:

  • Superimposition, used as a means of exposing the transition from day to night–and vice versa, from night to day–by having the black cow (night) physically cover the horses (the sun);
  • Color, essential to the contrast between the blackness of the cow (the night sky) and the multicolored file of horses (sun- and daylight);
  • Size, used effectively to make the enormity of the cow (the expanse of the sky) overwhelm the horses (the sun as an object);
  • Schematization, a factor in the description of the cow, as its nearly square shape suggests the regular parameters of the sky (possibly, the cow’s legs were the four pillars of the world, as stated in the mentioned Egyptian picture of the celestial cow);
  • Truncation, applied to the horses to show their passage into and out of the cow;
  • Movement, used to define the action, with several horses running, and the file of horses generally moving toward the stationary cow, and away from it;
  • Space-for-time, achieved by stretching out the file of horses, which counts about twenty figures in all, to illustrate the passing of time from dusk to dawn;
  • Direction, meaningful, because the horses leave the depths of the earth (the chamber of the lions) behind and aim for the outside world (the Rotunda of the white aurochs);
  • Topography, a prime factor in the portrayal of the celestial cow, which is lodged high in the extraordinary, smooth and sky-like, vault of the Nave;
  • Ideograms, in the form of several large, square signs (not included in Fig. 1) comment on the implied meaning of the scene (cf. Chapter IV).

          The above example indicates that the art of the caves is a narrative art form that employs a variety of visual effects, each of which is a potential aid in detecting aspects of meaning and substantiating hypothetical readings.

Iconography and iconology
          Iconography is the methodical pursuit of conventional imagery for the purpose of detecting inherent meaning. The approach is based on the realization that traditions in the arts accommodate both the expectations of audiences and the needs of artists; the former are conversant with standard illustrations of familiar ideas, and the latter rely on extant models as basis for new variations. The configuration of the black cow and the horse in Lascaux is one version of a standard theme, one that reappears, for instance, as the main theme in the cave of La Loja. The invention of a completely new way to illustrate a familiar theme is always a demanding task, and artists of all times commonly resort to proven visual models which, in any case, remain useful for as long as the inherent ideas are valid. Thus, the incessant use of the horse, the most frequent and ubiquitous motif in Ice Age art, is understandable if, as hypothesized, this species was the main image of the sun–certainly a major subject in an age when frost was a constant threat.
          In any period, a conventional representation is the vehicle for a distinct concept, and for this reason such images are valuable in interpretive analysis. The iconographic approach has a well-established place in the study of art from historical cultures, but it applies equally well to the imagery of any prehistoric culture that, like the Upper Palaeolithic, sustained traditional art forms. An iconography is the first step in the process of decoding a body of art works, the phase in which the interpreter identifies visual prototypes (such as the horse that represents the sun, or the aurochs as the sky) as well as their repeated variations (for example, the vertical horse as the rising or setting sun, or the black cow as the night sky). In turn, an iconology–the sum of iconographic observations–will correlate these model formulations, weaving their individual messages into the framework for a general interpretation.
          Images that offer clear formulations of widely shared thoughts may seem ageless and universal, suggesting that their appeal is to subconscious levels of the mind; however, for the purpose of interpretation, we shall address only the conscious levels of meaning, those that we may consider time- and culture-bound prototypes rather than eternal archetypes. While the rebirth of the horse from the body of the cow no doubt reflects a universal belief in the female womb as the ultimate source of life, this aspect of the image may interest psychologists more than art historians; we shall pursue a more informative reading if we, more specifically, identify the cow as the night sky and the horse as the sun.
Iconographic analysis assumes that the visual arts are somewhat similar to language (spoken or written). Both media express concepts by means of a vocabulary–words, or images–that is treated in accordance with a grammar. The visual vocabulary consists of the individual motifs (for example, the horse) with their generic meaning (for example, “the sun”); the visual grammar rules the nuances of meaning and operates through common signifiers like color and size (for example, a horse painted black to indicate “the sun in winter, or a very large horse signifying the power of the sun). Compared with spoken and written languages, the visual language of the Ice Age caves commands a rather small vocabulary, one that primarily served mythical/religious needs, and apparently was of no use for commercial or administrative purposes. The potential range of meaning projected by the art works was, however, augmented by the almost endless variation of details of in the visual presentations, by the added contribution from cave topography, and by a tenet of mythical (pre-logical) thinking, according to which any creature is a diminutive version of the world at large, a microcosm.
          The microcosmic principle unfolds in agreement with the dualistic philosophy that organizes the macrocosm (cf. Chapter X). Thus, to use the idea of the solar horse, the forequarters of a horse may signify “morning” and the hindquarters may be “evening” (as in the Lascaux scene, Fig. 1); the front part may signify “spring,” the hind part “fall”; the horse’s back or head may relate to the sky, its belly and legs may suggest the earth; the horse’s mane might imply “summer” or “day,” its tail, “winter” or “night.” As in much art of later ages, the hands or the head of a human figure may relate to the sky or the sun, while the lower body or legs may point to the earth. This duplicity is not arbitrary or ambiguous; to the contrary, these alternative readings are always potentially present and customarily anticipated.
          Although the visual semiotics of Ice Age art may have been more flexible than normative grammatical rules, the artists achieved fine nuances of meaning that they extricated from a restricted but essential artistic vocabulary. A few examples will demonstrate the effectiveness of iconographic analysis in identifying the visual prototypes and recognizing their nuanced applications.

The horse and the lion
          We know from a statistical review of motifs in a great number of caves, that the artists preferred certain associations of animal species over others. From the statistics we learn, for example, that the image of a lion in a panel typically is accompanied by the image of a horse (Sauvet and Wlodarczyk 1995, 197 and 204). An iconographic analysis of scenes with lions and horses (cf. Fig. 2 a-c) allows us to expand on this observation to the effect that, more precisely, the presence of a lion may entail the accompaniment of two horses, and that, furthermore, these two horses are turned in opposite directions of each other. Such a configuration, obviously, does not render a common, natural sight; it is strictly a visual convention.
          In the innermost chamber of Chauvet, the “Sacristy,” a large lion assumes a strongly dominant and oppressive role in relation to the two smaller horses with which it is juxtaposed (Fig. 2 a). The two small horses are subdued by the size and position of the lion, but to different degrees: the lower horse is directed toward the back of the cave, while the upper horse is directed out; the latter horse is also turned upward and is noticeably the more vigorous one. If, as suggested above, the horse is the sun, the scene may describe the winter solstice as the very moment when the sun’s decline ends and its recovery begins, or in terms of directionality, the point where the sun stops moving south and starts moving north. This reading also applies to an occurrence of the same visual scheme in the much younger cave of Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 2 b). Again, this scene is located at the extreme end of the cave, where the gallery narrows into a terminal fissure, and again a large lion dominates the horses. This lion is turned inward and, thus, keeps the horses captured in the back. The two small heads of horses under this lion are strikingly similar to the two horses under the lion at Chauvet, and again, they are turned in opposite directions, one inward, the other outward. Here too we might suspect a description of the turning of the solar year at the winter solstice. A third example, again reminiscent of Chauvet, is found in a cramped, remote alcove of the large cave of Pech-Merle (Fig. 2 c). Here too, the lion dominates, and again, one horse is turned inward (the one attached to the lion), while the other one is turned outward (away from the lion); the latter is also turned upward.
          The ominous character of these lion/horse panels combined with their locations near the end of caves, suggest a general interpretation in terms of the capture and retention of the fleeting horse (presumably the sun) by the predatory lion (perhaps associated with winter). Fortunately, we are able to confirm this impression because of the incidental connection between the panel in the “Sacristy” of Chauvet (Fig. 2 a) and a scene just outside this chamber (Fig. 3) where, directly above the entrance, a monstrous, three-headed lion hovers over a single horse as the latter emerges from inside. The close similarity between this leonine monster and the Greek “Cerberus,” the many-headed guardian of the land of the dead (cf. Chapter I), provides a narrative context for the scenes inside the “Sacristy” (Fig. 2 a) and, because of the shared visual formula, also for the other two examples in the above iconographic series (Fig. 2 b and c). This cluster of themes, in turn, offers promising clues for further studies of the connections between horse, sun, solstice, winter, cave-depths, and death.

The bison bull and the doe
      In the above analyses of the horse/aurochs cow and the horse/lion themes, our readings were helped by the chance discovery of comparable images within historical cultures (Egypt and Greece). Without the benefit of these analogies, we could not have immediately identified the narrative contents. More typically, we do not have the advantage of close historical parallels to Ice Age images, but even so, iconographic analysis allows us to identify visual prototypes that may point to the underlying ideas.
          Consider, for example, the distinct combination of a bison and a female deer, which recurs in different regions and periods of cave art (Fig. 4 a-k). This theme does not instantly recall any historical imagery, yet we recognize it as a genuine theme for two reasons. First, given that bison and deer lived in different environments, the association defies naturalistic explanations. Second, all of these scenes emphatically place the doe in connection with the bison’s back, with some deer situated immediately above the bison (Fig. 4 d, e, f, g, i, j), and others positioned directly across the line of the bison’s back (Fig. 4 a, b, c, h, k). Though most of the examples shown here are in Spanish caves, the theme was widely distributed and three examples are in France (Fig. 4 i, j, k). The formulation was popular, too, for in a couple of instances, two versions are found together in the same cave (Fig. 4 a and b, from Castillo; Fig. 4 g and h, from Altamira). The very similar scenes in Altamira, Spain (Fig. 4 g) and Combarelles, France (Fig. 4 i) speak of shared artistic conventions across separate regions. The identity of the bison/doe prototype was so well established that it was recognized even in the form of a caricature, as in the scene from Pergouset (Fig. 4 k), which is located in a room that features only distorted or imaginary figures.
          Although we do not know the story behind these scenes, we can deduce some of the meaning from the way they intentionally bring two oddly incompatible characters together. One clue to the implied concept seems to be sexuality, for the bison is apparently always male (explicitly so in Fig. 4 a, f, g, h, i; indirectly so in Fig. 4 e, g, j) and the doe is obviously female. This dichotomy of species and sex is the more striking as the bison is one of the most massive and heavy animals (only surpassed by the mammoth) while the doe is the model of delicacy and gracefulness. Potentially meaningful is also the tendency for the does to be placed above the bison (and, in one case, to be horizontal when the bison is turned vertically downwards). These features suggest, at the least, a rough outline of a narrative, that is worth pursuing (cf. Chapter VII).

The visual matrix
          The above analysis is typical of many that must be performed in order to become conversant with the language of Ice Age art. In each chapter, the present project will expose the motifs that chiefly represent the particular subject of that chapter. The motifs are mainly animal species, but they may also be anthropomorphs (masks, sexualized figures, hand prints); many are objects (weapons, clouds, plants); a great many are ideograms (cosmograms, numerical signs). The following is a brief summary of the main conceptual themes, the key visual motifs, and the relevant chapters.

  • The earth and the mountains: the bison and the mammoth. (Chapter III).
  • The sky: the aurochs. (Chapter IV).
  • The sun: the horse. (Chapter V).
  • Fire, growth, male sexuality: the stag. (Chapter VI).
  • The seasonal sequence: the ibex (thunder); the doe (female sexuality); the reindeer (migrations); fishes (thaw); the bear (hibernation). (Chapter VII).
  • Ancestral images: humans (disfigured, or partial). (Chapter VIII).
  • Death and destruction (eschatology): the lion; the rhinoceros; monsters. (Chapter IX).
  • Dualism: bison/mammoth/lion/rhino versus horse/aurochs/ deer/ibex/bear. (Chapter X).
  • The proto-zodiac: aurochs (Taurus); ibex (Capricornus); lion (Leo); rhino (Scorpius). (Chapter XI).

        In the context of a mythical (pre-logical) mind-set the interpretation of an individual motif only identifies its essential meaning, the core around which other associations and variations may cluster. For example, the aurochs bull, with the fundamental meaning of the sky, is also a male symbol, a lunar image (because of the horns), a harbinger of thunder (in spring), and a constellation (Taurus). In the case of the white bulls at Lascaux, all of these readings apply to the famous frieze, although the sky stands out as the main implication given the ostentatious composition by which the bodies of the bulls occupy the sky-like vault of the Rotunda. Some, or all, of the mentioned readings of aurochs bulls are also known to co-exist even in the mythical/religious lore of historical cultures; for example, the bull is known as the vehicle of the storm god, as a moon god, as the prime sacrificial offering, and as the constellation Taurus. The multiple implications of such versatile motifs never confused people who were at home in the cultural paradigm of their era.