Lascaux’s cave paintings are famous because of their exceptional quality, size, sophistication and antiquity.
Estimated to be more than 17,000 years old, the paintings consist primarily of large animals, once native to the region. They are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period.
On September 12, 1940, the entrance to Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat. Ravidat returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, and entered the cave via a long shaft. The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals.
The cave complex was opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, the carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and other contaminants produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly damaged the paintings. The cave was closed to the public in 1963 in order to preserve the art.
The walls of the cavern are decorated with some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols and nearly 1,500 engravings.
Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using red, yellow, and black colors from a complex multiplicity of mineral pigments.
Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human.
There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists.
Rooms in the cave include the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man,
the Chamber of Engravings, the Painted Gallery, the Nave and the Chamber of Felines.
The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion.
Branching off to the right of the Great Hall of the Bulls is the Lateral Passage, which connects the Great Hall of the Bulls to the rest of the chambers. The walls in this area have deteriorated due to corrosion predating the site’s discovery, leaving few paintings or engravings readily visible.
Considered by some to be the pinnacle of Paleolithic cave art, the Painted Gallery is a continuation of the Great Hall of the Bulls. This rectilinear gallery is over 22 metres (72 feet) long and leads to a dead end. The walls of the Painted Gallery depict numerous horses, aurochs, ibexes, as well as a stag at the entrance to the gallery and a bison at the back.
The Chamber of Engravings or the Apse is a smaller rotunda filled with over 600 engravings and paintings. The engravings predominate, and are separated into three sections. On the lower third of the walls are aurochs, above them are deer, and covering the entire dome are horses. There is more overlapping of figures here than in any other chamber, making it difficult to accurately make out the various figures.
In the Shaft of the Dead Man is found the only figure of a human being on the walls of Lascaux. This painting, entitled “Scene of the Dead Man,” is a triptych of a bison, a man, and what appears to be a rhinoceros. The man appears to have had a confrontation with the bison, and is pictured lying prone on the ground with a broken spear next to him.
The Nave measures 18 meters (59 feet) in length, and averages 6 meters (20 feet) in width. Most of the pictures in the Nave are engravings due to the softness of the rock. Notable areas of decoration include: the Panel of the Imprint (noted for its accompanying symbols and signs), the Panel of Seven Ibexes, the Panel of the Great Black Cow [photo below] (regarded as the most beautiful scene in the cave), the Crossed Bison (best example of Magdalenian use of perspective), and the Frieze of the Swimming Stags, depicted swimming in an imaginary stream.
About 25 meters ( feet) long, the Chamber of the Felines differs from Lascaux’s other galleries by its narrow dimensions and steep gradient which makes movement difficult. Of the 51 animal figures in this gallery, the horse is the dominant species, with twenty-nine representations, followed by nine bison, four ibexes and three stags. There are no aurochs. Images of felines are more present here, with six depictions, than in the rest of the cave.
Archaeologists believe that the cave was used over a long period of time as a center for hunting and religious rites.
Lascaux II, a replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery located 200 meters away from the original, was opened in 1983, so that visitors may view the painted scenes without harming the originals. Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.
Lascaux Cave is known as “the prehistoric Sistine Chapel.”
The UNESCO World Heritage Convention declared the Lascaux Cave a World Heritage Site in 1979, as part of a group of prehistoric sites and caves in the area.