II. Methodology


An iconographic analysis is a methodical pursuit of conventional images–images that belong to a distinct tradition–for the purpose of detecting their inherent meaning, The approach is based on the assumption that the individual visual motif carries a particular idea (or set of ideas) and furthermore, that this specific motif retains the association with that particular concept as long as the wider cultural matrix remains intact. The iconographic approach is, therefore, applicable to Upper Palaeolithic art to the extent that this era was able to sustain a traditional art form, namely the cave art tradition for more than twenty thousand years.

In the process of decoding a body of art works, the iconography of certain motifs serves, in the first place, to identify a number of motifs as the persistent, visual representation of an idea–which could be, for two hypothetical examples, the horse as a solar image (cf. Chapter V) or the aurochs as an image of the sky (cf. Chapter IV). In the second place, iconographic analysis pursues thematic variations on the basic meaning–for example, a vertical horse as the rising or setting sun, respectively a black aurochs cow as the night sky, or a red cow as dawn or dusk. Eventually, the final step, an iconology, may correlate these model formulations, weaving their individual messages into the framework of a broader interpretation.

As a time-honored  methodology in art history,  an iconography for a given era, pinpoints the distinct conceptual content associated with a particular visual formulation. The blue mantle of Virgin Mary, the crown of thorns of the crucifixion, or Eve ‘s apple are examples among many iconographic motifs in Christian art; iconographic themes combine motivic prototypes–Virgin Mary with the Christ child, or Adam and Eve with the snake. In European cave art, iconographic motifs are typically  individual animal species, and themes are often juxtapositions of different species. That these associations often are artificial–unlikely to ever occur in nature–makes them all the more intentional and, thus, inherently meaningful. A substantial volume of art works is needed in order to detect and identify the specific function of individual motifs, and while this requirement was not met in the early phase of cave art studies, more than a century of exploration of  Palaeolithic cave art has, by now, established a fund of many thousand images from several hundred caves. This substantial , well-documented volume of cave decorations constitutes a body of works that is adequate for the task of  identifying thematic/narrative traditions, and thus, for sustaining iconographic analyses as an approach to interpretation.

An iconology, in turn, collects a body of iconographic analyses  in order to grasp the scope of intellectual/emotional concerns shared by the artists across regional specializations and the stylistic characteristics of shifting periods. An iconology for Palaeolithic cave art may, eventually, identify the means of articulation on which the artists relied in order to join their visual themes. These profound patterns remained more constant than the fluctuating–regional and temporal–appearances of individual motifs and themes. An iconology, then, may shift the focus of  interpretive readings from the all-too-common obsession with ephemeral styles and dates to the pursuit of lasting ideas and beliefs.

Stories and scenes in Ice Age art

Already the earliest cave sanctuaries present us with a highly complex, multi-layered art form, in which we find both the variety of motifs and the striking juxtapositions of these motifs, which remained characteristic of subsequent periods of Ice Age art. Though old by most standards, Upper Palaeolithic art 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 general agreement with our current criteria for art. It is true that extremely old artistic practices lingered in the cave artists’ predilection for nature-given shapes, such as a rock formation that suggests an animal figure in the raw, but such rudimentary impulses concern only a small fraction within the large body of premeditated, through-composed works. Considering the array of narrative and expressive means employed in the cave of Chauvet (which dates back at least 35,000 years), the artists who decorated the early caves already commanded a rich repertory of artistic techniques that served both emotional expression and intellectual complexity.

If artists of the Upper Palaeolithic, indeed, employed their technical means with the same sensibility and intelligence as modern artists, we must assume that their technical choices amounted to deliberate statements. Size, for example, must have been a signifier, to the effect that a large figure next to a small figure was a meaningful contrast; likewise we must look for meaning in contrasts between figures that are horizontal and vertical, colorful and black, spectacular and discreet, complete and partial. Surely, the artists projected different messages when they showed figures in isolation, as opposed to figures in groups,; they meant something different with ensembles of uniform, congenial figures, as opposed to groupings of  diverse, incompatible figures. We may safely rely on such nuances of articulation as means to qualify the relationship between individual motifs and, eventually, as aids in recognizing compositions as narrative scenes.

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 units of composite 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 arrangement of individual images, which is to say that they intuitively read decorated panels 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 contents are implied, be they of religious/ritual or philosophical/didactic essence. We may illustrate this aspect of cave art  with an example of a staged encounter between two major motifs, the horse and the aurochs, in a narrative of  great thematic complexity, one that we are enabled to read by way of a historical–motivic and thematic–parallel.

Example (1): 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). This 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 specific story. 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 systematically wrong, however, because it denies the artists the mental ability to compose an imaginary whole out of disparate elements. It is quite unlikely that the (assumed) 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–even premeditated–and the resulting accumulation a true composition.

If we were to ignore narrative scenes in cave art, we would by the same token dismiss potential clues to the interpretation of both the motifs presented and of the themes involved. In the case of the Lascaux panel, we would have to reject as purely accidental the similarity between the black cow and the well-known image of a cow in the tomb of the Egyptian king Setis I. This painting (Chapter I: Fig. 3) ) 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 connected to her figure: the one at her front related to the concept of Nut swallowing the sun in the evening; the one at her rear related 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 as meaningful, and we must consider the possibility that the black cow of Lascaux might be the night-sky, and that the horses might represent the sun passing through her body. Although similarity does not prove identity, the compatibility of the two scenes  should, at the least, encourage pursuit of some promising clues, including the function of  the aurochs as an image of the sky and the identity of the horse as a solar image  (cf. Chapters IV and V).

Narrative/expressive techniques in Ice Age art

If we assume that the artists of Lascaux who painted the black cow, indeed, wanted to illustrate a myth about the celestial cow and the solar horse, then the simplest way might have been to juxtapose two drawings, one of a cow and one of a horse;  even just a cow’s head and a horse’s head might have sufficed. Possibly, the single head of a cow (such as the isolated red cow’s head in the Castillo cave) could even be enough to evoke the familiar narrative. Any and all steps beyond this minimal representation would, however, enhance the message, and considering that Lascaux clearly was perceived as a major cave, and that a great amount of work–in fact, a huge effort–went into its decoration, and furthermore keeping in mind that the horse is the dominant motif of the site, it is germane that a description of the celestial cow and the solar horse would merit an elaborate display and employ a wide range of technical resources. Indeed, the artist’s tool chest as deployed in the panel of the black cow bears comparison with the resources of many historical art forms. At the least, we recognize the following array of technical 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, first toward the stationary cow, then 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 behind and aim for the outside world ;
  • 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 of Lascaux;
  • Ideograms: in the form of several large, square signs (Chapter X: Fig. 46, a and c)  that comment on esoteric aspects of meaning in the scene (cf. Chapters IV and X).

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 potentially useful for the interpreter as an aid in detecting shades of meaning and in substantiating hypothetical readings.

Cave art as visual language

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 Spanish cave of La Loja (Breuil 1952, 376); both the two motifs and the wider theme were, evidently, familiar to artists and their audiences  throughout the area of cave art. An iconography of motifs and themes is relevant for Palaeolithic art fully as well as for historical art forms, precisely because the approach is based on the perennial relationship between artists and their audiences. Durable traditions in the arts meet, equally, the needs of the artist and the expectations of their audiences: the former benefit from extant models as basis for new variations; the latter recognize new works that rely on standard illustrations of familiar ideas.  The invention of a completely new way to illustrate a familiar theme is, in any age, a demanding task, and artists of all times commonly resort to proven visual models that remain useful–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, seems 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, one that artists could rely on for a positive response.

Images that offer clear formulations of widely shared thoughts may seem ageless and universal, possibly because they appeal to subconscious levels of the mind. An interpretation of prehistoric art founded on sustainable evidence is, however, only possible if we address conscious levels of meaning; that is, time- and culture-bound prototypes rather than elusive, timeless archetypes. While the rebirth of the horse from the body of the cow no doubt reflects a deep-seated, universal belief in the female womb as the ultimate source of life, this aspect of the image may interest psychologists more than art historians. For our purposes, we may be on more solid ground if we, more specifically, identify the horse as the sun and the cow as the night sky.

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(s) (for example, “the sun,” or “the solar year”); the visual grammar determines 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 full 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 religious/philosophical needs, operating through myths and symbols, but which  apparently was of limited use for purposes of trade or other social interaction. The potential range of meanings projected by the art works was, nevertheless, augmented by the boundless variation of details in the visual presentations, as well as by the added contribution from the endlessly varied topography of the caves themselves. To these we may add 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 in Ice Age art is ruled by a dualistic philosophy that also 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.

The visual semiotics of Ice Age art were not rigorously normative like the grammatical rules of a writing system, but in some ways, they were more flexible, allowing the artists to extricate fine nuances of meaning from an essential, restricted visual vocabulary. A few examples will demonstrate the potential of iconographic analysis to identify visual prototypes and recognize their nuanced applications, even in scenes for which we have no immediate historical parallels.

Example (2): 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) suggests that we can extend this observation to say that, more precisely, the presence of a lion may entail the accompaniment of two horses, and that, furthermore, these two horses typically are turned in opposite directions of each other. Such scenes may, at a fundamental level, refer to a natural phenomenon–hoofed prey scattering to confuse pursuing felines–but the artists made little or no efforts to render the sight of flight-and-pursuit (the horses cornered in the back of Font-de-Gaume, Fig. 2 b , may hint at that, but the scene in Pech-Merle, Fig. 2 c, is most awkward as a hunting scene). The same is true of other examples of the same motif found in Gabillou (Gaussen 1964, nos. 193, 194) and Marsoulas (Fritz and Tosello 2010, 44-45), both places intermingled with other figures that are unrelated to hunting.  The motif is a visual convention and its components are metaphors.; in each case, the lion is in a dominant position, and the scene is set in the innermost, reclusive section of  a cave.

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 outward; the latter horse is also turned upward and is noticeably the more vigorous one. If, as suggested above, the horse represents the sun, the scene may describe the winter solstice as the very moment when the sun’s decline ends and its recovery begins,  the point where the sun changes the direction of its move along the horizon. This reading also applies to the 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, one is turned inward, the other outward. Here too we might see 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 (conceivably a solar image) by the predatory lion (likely associated with death and winter). Fortunately, we are able to confirm this impression because of the incidental connection between the above 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 is seen emerging 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.

Example (3): The bison bull and the doe

In the above analyses of the horse/aurochs cow and the horse/lion themes, our readings were helped along by  comparable images within historical cultures (Egypt and Greece). Without the benefit of these analogies, it would be harder to identify the narrative contents. Typically, we do not have the advantage of close historical parallels to Ice Age images, and we rely on verbal texts (oral or written) to point out underlying ideas in the visual prototypes identified by our iconographic analysis.

For an example, consider a distinct combination of a bison and a female deer that is represented in different regions and separate 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. In the first place, because the association defies naturalistic explanations, given that bison and deer lived in different environments. In the second place, because all of the scenes in our iconographic series 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 come from 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 a shared artistic convention 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. The dichotomy of species and sexes 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 thematic 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 the course of the present project we shall expose key themes associated with the main motifs, the latter being the key subjects of individual chapters. 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 and the solar year: the horse. (Chapter V).
  • Fire, growth, regeneration: the stag. (Chapter VI).
  • The seasonal sequences: the ibex (thunder); the doe (fertility); the reindeer (migration); fishes (thaw); the bear (hibernation). (Chapter VII).
  • Ancestors (disfigured, or partial) and deities: anthropomorphic images. (Chapter VIII).
  • Death and destruction (eschatology): the lion; the rhinoceros; monsters. (Chapter IX).
  • Dualism: earth-bound motifs versus sky-bound motifs; ideograms (mass versus energy). (Chapter X).
  • The proto-zodiac: constellations; calendrical signs. (Chapter XI).

In the context of a prehistoric–possibly mythical and pre-logical–mind-set, the interpretation of an individual motif can hardly hope to capture more than the essential meaning, the core around which many other associations and variations may cluster. For example, the aurochs bull, with the fundamental meaning of the sky (cf. Chapter IV), 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 huge white bulls at Lascaux, in the famous frieze in the Rotunda, all of these readings apply to the bulls , even as the sky stands out as the main theme due to the setting in the planetarium-like vault of that hall. This cluster of related ideas under the umbrella of one main motif need not deter us from pursuing our varied readings;  particularly not, if we keep in mind that all of the mentioned ideas associated with aurochs bulls are found even in the mythical/religious lore of historical cultures, including the bull as the emblem of a sky god, as the vehicle of a 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. The author’s endeavor is to negotiate this intricate web of associations by, initially, identifying the themes individually, each in its respective chapter.