The Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope in Vatican City. It’s most famous for its ceiling, which was designed by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. Originally painted bright blue with gilded stars, the ceiling now features nine panels depicting the creation of the world. Initially Michelangelo was reluctant to accept the commission because he considered himself primarily a sculptor, but he changed his mind after he was granted a free hand in the design. The ceiling is exceptional for its huge size (close to 5,000 square feet), brilliant color, and remarkable detail.
France’s Grotte Chauvet of Pont d’Arc is a cave featuring extraordinary prehistoric paintings. It was discovered in 1994 and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. While not religious in nature, Chauvet Cave has become known as the Sistine Chapel of Cave Art because of the incredible paintings it contains.
When Were The Paintings Discovered?
Chauvet Cave is located in the Ardeche department of southeastern France, near the community of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. In December of 1994, three scientists discovered the cave on the side of a limestone cliff above the bed of what was once the Ardeche River. The cave was called the Grotte Chauvet after one of the discoverers, Jean Marie Chauvet. A few years later, the scientists returned to further explore the cave system, and they came upon what is now known as the Gallery of the Lions.
How Old Are The Paintings?
An initial study found that the paintings were 30,000 to 32,000 years old and dated to the Aurignacian period. Further studies identified paintings from two periods: one from 33,500 to 37,000 years ago and one from 28,000 to 31,000 years ago. The soft clay floor of the cave revealed bear paw prints, the footprints of a child, and the prints of a wolf or dog. For comparison’s sake, the last ice age in Europe took place 11,700 years ago.
What Do The Paintings Depict?
Like the paintings of the Sistine Chapel, the paintings of Chauvet Cave are notable for their size and detail. More than 1,000 drawings have been discovered in the cave, 435 of which depict 14 different species of animals. There are horses, mammoths, cave lions, and leopards, among others. Dots and lines are plentiful, but most fascinating are the handprints and hand stencils.
The artists used advanced techniques not found in other ancient caves to create their masterpieces. They scraped the walls clean of debris to prepare a clean canvas. They also knew how to create a three-dimensional effect and the impression of movement by etching around the outlines of certain figures. Some drawings of horses appear to be in full gallop, and a bull seems to be charging.
The figures are painted in red, ochre, and black. According to scientists, the newer paintings in ochre were completed over the older paintings in black.
Can Visitors See The Paintings?
Yes and no. These ancient treasures are fragile, and so, for conservation purposes, the cave has been closed to the public since its discovery. However, five buildings, including one with a facsimile of the Chauvet cave paintings, have been erected nearby. These buildings have been open to visitors since 2014.
The guided tour (with audio for those who do not speak French) from Vallon Pont d’Arc takes approximately 4 hours, since the buildings also include other permanent exhibitions of cave art.
Where Else Has Cave Art Been Discovered?
Chauvet Cave is not the only cave that has been compared to the Sistine Chapel. Several other caves also feature outstanding paintings of prehistoric origin.
The Cave of Altamira in northern Spain was discovered in 1868 in Cantabria, 19 miles from Santander.
The rock shelters of Chiribiquete National Park are located in the middle of a jungle about 200 miles from Bogotá, Colombia.
The Lascaux Cave, also located in France, was discovered in 1940 near Montignac in the Dordogne.
What Else Is There To Do In The Ardeche?
Chauvet Cave is not the only attraction in the Ardeche. This region of France welcomes few tourists; it’s dominated by the wild Ardeche River, which offers great kayaking opportunities. The area is dotted with gorges, castles, mountains, and valleys. This is an ideal vacation destination for nature lovers and fit hikers. You may find that English is not widely spoken in the more remote areas.
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