MERCY IN THE CAVE OF NIAUX
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Eventually, they reached a more even, rock-free stretch, wide and high-ceilinged, and instead of scrambling down or up, they now found themselves travelling along a seemingly unending sandbank. Although laborious and slow, the going here was somewhat easier. Feeling that she was able to cope on her own, Celia let go of her helper’s hand. At last she could breathe and think a little. As she watched the tips of their shoes moving constantly in and out of the circle of their lights, she reflected on how strange all this was. How unreal to walk hand in hand with a total stranger, with someone she could hardly see. She could just make out that he was very tall, slim, and that he was dressed in dark clothes. He had ample white hair and a matching, elegantly pointed beard. She also knew that the agility and certainty of his movements were those of a man far younger than the age suggested by the colour of his hair. This was the sum total of her knowledge of this man who so generously and unquestioningly was helping her.
How much ground had they actually covered? It was hard to tell - it seemed as if hours had passed since they had entered the cave. How much further was it? Was the worst behind them? As if in answer to her questions, the guide called another halt to prepare them for the next stage: ‘We are now coming to the truly tricky section of our tour. First, we have to cross a dried-up, underground river-bed – however, due to recent rainfalls you will find that there is quite a lot of water today. Take great care for it is very slippery. Once across, you will see a very large, steep rock. Bearing right, you will find steps cut into the rock to assist our modern visitors. Immediately afterwards, we will come to a couple of low galleries. You will need to duck and watch your head. Now follow me!’
Celia wished she had not let go of the stranger’s hand. Would he be so kind as to offer his assistance again or would he think that during this ‘truly tricky section’ he needed to look after himself? If so, who could blame him? She need not have worried, for her invisible helper was already at her side offering his hand which Celia was only too grateful to accept. There was a splashing noise in front, clearly someone had slipped and fallen into the water. Those with energy to spare were laughing and joking: ‘No-one told me to bring my swimming suit.’ – ‘To think that we are doing this for fun!’ A man to her left was in a less frivolous mood and Celia could hear him cursing volubly under his breath as he waded ankle-deep through icy water. Bad choice of route, Celia thought, but then she, too, misjudged an innocuous-looking puddle, and water came rushing over the rim of her boots. No matter, on they marched and squelched as best they could.
Despite the warning, the almost vertical rock-face came as a great shock. The steps, when she found them, were damp, slippery and very far apart, and it was only with much straining and groaning that she made it to the top. What would she have done without her helper? A few steps took them to the ‘low galleries’. In single file, crouching, head at knee- and lamp-level, they inched their way forward. Fortunately, the passage was shorter than Celia had expected and she was just enjoying the relief of straightening up when someone at the front shouted: ‘Encore! Attention la tête!’ Once more, she doubled up and struggled forward. Will this never end!
The Black Salon, Niaux Cave
Suddenly the guide asked them to stop – apparently they were very close to the main chamber of the cave, the Black Salon. Although Celia could not see a thing, she sensed that they had entered a vast chamber, the walls and dome of which vanished into the depths of darkness. How easy it would be to get lost in this immensity! ‘We are now standing in the Black Salon, 500 meters underground’, the guide announced, her words resonating and echoing around the cathedral-like chamber. They had arrived. They had reached the furthermost point, the extremity of a cul-de-sac which to the Magdalenians had been the goal of their strange and cruel descent into the bowels of the earth - a journey that would have been unimaginably more dangerous and challenging 14 000 years ago when it was done by smoky torchlight, when every nook and cranny held real or imagined dangers. ‘Come closer, assemble here’, the guide ordered. ‘Now place your lamps on this flat-topped rock and switch them off’. One by one, their lights went out. No-one spoke, no-one moved – the darkness was absolute.
How eerie this deep darkness was! Wide-eyed, she stared into the impenetrable blackness. Never before had she experienced anything the like. It was as if with the loss of sight, she had been deprived of her other senses. Where were her links with the outside world, the guide and her lamp? And now another sensation seized her: with her physical eyes ‘switched off’, her gaze had spontaneously turned inwards to another place of experience, the place of dreams. She was just trying to take hold of these fleeting impressions and solve the riddle when the powerful beam of the guide’s lamp pierced the darkness. What a shock! And what a thrill! Directly in front of her, a whole assembly of animals had suddenly sprung into view. A collective hushed intake of breath broke the silence.
Panel of Bison from the Niaux Cave
The large panel of animals consisted mostly of bison but there were also horses, ibexes and deer. The majority of the animals were depicted in profile, without a base-line or solid ground for support, as if they were floating in space. For a moment Celia stood spellbound and had to close her eyes. She immediately opened them again to get a better look at the bison closest of her. What a colossal and magnificent beast! The bison’s woolly, thick mane, his beautifully drawn tapering horns, legs and hooves were a testament both to the Palaeolithic painter’s intimate familiarity with the animal and to his highly-developed artistic skills. Letting her eyes glide over the whole bison, Celia now noticed that he appeared to be wounded; there certainly were arrowheads, and there was also blood. As the rest of the animal was drawn in black, the red blood caught the viewer’s eye most forcefully. By moving slightly to the left, she found herself faced, or rather, confronted by a bison of even greater size and stature. With a couple of strokes, the artist had so skilfully delineated the eye that one expected it to move at any moment. It looked straight at her. Determined to return its steady, penetrating gaze, Celia stepped forward, right up to the rope protecting the panel. But the bison out-stared her. He looked at her with great majesty and superiority, full of wisdom and ruthlessness. “Who are you?” she whispered, then quickly tore her gaze away as the experience had made her feel uncomfortable. Somehow she felt as if her question had been intrusive, even impertinent.
The guide illuminated another panel and by swaying her lamp to imitate the flickering, dancing flames of a torch, the animals suddenly came alive and were full of movement and energy. It was as if the light had woken them up, had briefly called them back from a time far away in the past, only to let them sink back into eternal rest when it was extinguished. This is how the Magdalenian hunters would have seen the galloping herds: here the front of a bison, there the legs or backside of a horse or an ibex. Would this perhaps explain why so many of the images were superimposed? The group’s attention was drawn to the deepest recess of the Salon Noir. Here, a craggy gap in the rock had inspired the artist to see a deer head emerging from the behind the rock; all he had had to do to complete the image, was to draw the antlers. It was as if the very stone itself had told the artist where to paint and what. Celia returned to the first panel with the majestic bison. To her astonishment she now noticed that here, too, the artist had let the stone speak. The painter had used a deep, black hole in the rock for the eye-socket and then guided by the stone had composed the whole animal around it. What a dreamlike, mystical interaction between nature, spirit and man, Celia reflected. It really was as if the spirit of the animal had briefly stepped from another world beyond the existing, non-existing veil, had appeared and invited the artists to seize it. And these brave artists, ready for the experience, had responded and captured the apparition for all to behold. These were not works of artistic self-expression - these were divinely-given masterpieces, depicting animals not of time but of eternity. How many generations of Palaeolithic hunter-visionaries would have stood here in exactly this place where she stood now, and like her, been enthralled by the sheer wonder of these paintings?