Films about Art: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

This post is Part I in a series highlighting some insightful documentary films from the past decade on art and artmaking.

In Werner Herzog’s award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), we are given rare access to the subterranean chambers of the Chauvet caves in southern France. Here, deep below the surface of the earth – many thousands of years ago – our distant ancestors covered the walls with line and colour. Exquisitely rendered bison and deer, horses which flicker in torchlight, human handprints confidently displayed in red ochre… these underground masterpieces are some of the earliest known examples of human art, dating back some 25,000 years. The caves are zealously guarded by the French government, but Herzog (and his 3-D cameras) were allowed in under strict regulations in order to record the paintings for posterity. It is fascinating to think of these elaborate and beautiful images, buried in darkness for so many millennia, coming to light in our own century. One can barely conceive of the immense age of these painted “dreams,” stretching back beyond any known civilization to the mysterious origins of humanity – they are invaluable artifacts, immaculately preserved visual records of the very “beginning of art.”

The paintings raise many questions. Who painted them? What purpose did they serve? Were these caves the site of cultic activity, sacred spaces adorned with holy or totemic images? Or did they serve a more practical purpose? What were the artists trying to accomplish through their art? Remarkably, the researchers in the caves have isolated one anonymous individual “artist,” based on the crooked finger which can be seen in his/her handprint, whose handiwork reoccurs throughout the cave. Who was this prehistoric individual, and what might this ancient maker tell us about the vocation of the artist, about the spiritual and symbolic nature of their task? Did they consider what they were doing to be “art” in anything close to the way we now conceive of the term? We might also ask whether there can be religion without art and artmaking – symbols, rituals, images – or if they have always been inextricably bound together.

The brilliant Alejandro Garcìa-Rivera traces the “beginning of art” back to the hidden “deep art” buried in dark prehistoric caverns like the Chauvet caves. Writing of the famous paintings at Lascaux, he remarks:

…one wonders which is more impressive: that the first humans were capable of creating paintings of such striking beauty or that someone should be moved deeply by these ancient paintings thirty thousand years after their creation![1]

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a testament to the affective power of art, the way it rekindles our sense of wonder – what Garcìa-Rivera terms a prelapsarian “innocence,” a “glimpse into the origins of our own beauty.”[2] It is amazing that these incredibly ancient drawings are so skillfully and creatively made, beautiful and provocative even in relation to subsequent art history. (The dynamic “motion” of the horses is reminiscent of Cubism.) But what is perhaps more surprising is that we share a common humanity with these unknown ancient artists through their work, that we are stirred deep within our souls by the experience of beauty across the ages.

Garcìa-Rivera suggests that we ought to simply define aesthetics as the study of “what moves the human heart.” Here, deep in these ancient caves painted with bears and bison, is a starting point for a “theology of art” which supports and nourishes a “theological aesthetics”; in wonder and awe, we recover a sense of our own primordial beauty, the “mystery of our own creatureliness.”[3] As we regard these cave paintings across the ages, we have a sense of the “communal” dimension of art and creativity, a reminder that to make art is essential to what it means to be human. And finally, even here in these dark, strange caves we find a faint echo of the transcendent beauty of God. To the extent that Herzog’s gentle lens has been able to open this concealed world of prehistoric beauty to us, we can be profoundly grateful.

Brett Potter is currently a PhD student in theology and art at the Toronto School of Theology (University of St. Michael’s College) and previously did an MCS in Christianity and the Arts at Regent College in Vancouver. He is also an active video artist and musician.

Image Credit

[1] Alejandro Garcìa-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a theology of art (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid., 5.


  • Brett David Potter is working on a PhD in theology, art and culture at the Toronto School of Theology and has an MCS in Christianity and the Arts from Regent College in Vancouver. Before that he studied film and video at York University. His current research project is an attempt to navigate the space between theological aesthetics and contemporary art, with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jean-Luc Marion as guides. Brett lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto, where alongside his academic interests he makes video art, writes music and blogs about art, film and faith (on his blog "unfolding forms".)

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  1. says: Travis Buchanan


    Thank you for your post. This is a film I’ve been wanting to watch for a while now, and I think I will now do it soon (along with Waste Land, which I’d not heard of before your post). I can’t help but think of Chesterton’s opening chapter of The Everlasting Man when I hear anything about the proverbial primitive ‘cave-man’, and (if you will forgive the lengthy quotations) I thought I would include some excerpts from that chapter which are particularly relevant to what the primitive cave-art says about those who made it. They are points which were not as explicitly included in your brief (but helpful) discussion either. Thanks!


    In fact, people have been interested in everything about the caveman except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. It is little enough, like all the prehistoric evidence, but it is concerned with the real caveman and his cave and not the literary cave-man and his club. And it will be valuable to our sense of reality to consider quite simply what that real evidence is, and not to go beyond it. . . . What was found in the cave was . . . something quite unconnected, one way or the other, with all the modern phrases and philosophical implications and literary rumours which confuse the whole question for us. . . .

    This secret chamber of rock, when illuminated after its long night of unnumbered ages, revealed on its walls large and sprawling outlines diversified with coloured earths; and when they followed the lines of them they recognised, across that vast and void of ages, the movement and the gesture of a man’s hand. They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognise; and about which no artist will allow himself to be contradicted by any scientist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempt difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse. But there are many modern animal-painters who would set themselves something of a task in rendering it truly. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. In that sense it would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist; the sort of naturalist who is really natural. . . .

    If somebody told him [a child entering the cave] that the pictures had all been drawn by St. Francis of Assisi out of pure and saintly love of animals, there would be nothing in the cave to contradict it. . . .

    It must surely strike him as strange that men so remote from him should be so near, and that beasts so near to him should be so remote. To his simplicity it must seem at least odd that he could not find any trace of the beginning of any arts among any animals. That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man. . . .

    Here I am only taking this one case of the cave as a sort of symbol of the simpler sort of truth with which the story ought to start. When all is said, the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. If the reindeer man was as much an animal as the reindeer, it was all the more extraordinary that he could do what all other animals could not. If he was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.

    But I have begun this story in the cave, like the cave of the speculations of Plato, because it is a sort of model of the mistake of merely evolutionary introductions and prefaces. It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist. All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone. How he came there, or indeed how anything else came there, is a thing for theologians and philosophers and scientists and not for historians. But an excellent test case of this isolation and mystery is the matter of the impulse of art. This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature. Nothing in that sense could be made in any other image but the image of man. But the truth is so true that, even in the absence of any religious belief, it must be assumed in the form of some moral or metaphysical principle. . . . The clearest and most convenient example to start with is this popular one of what the cave-man really did in his cave. It means that somehow or other a new thing had appeared in the cavernous night of nature, a mind that is like a mirror. It is like a mirror because it is truly a thing of reflection. It is like a mirror because in it alone all the other shapes can be seen like shining shadows in a vision. Above all, it is like a mirror because it is the only thing of its kind. Other things may resemble it or resemble each other in various ways; other things may excel it or excel each other in various ways; just as in the furniture of a room a table may be round like a mirror or a cupboard may be larger than a mirror. But the mirror is the only thing that can contain them all. Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God. These are the only real lessons to be learnt in the cave, and it is time to leave it for the open road. (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925), ch. 1, ‘The Man in the Cave’)

  2. says: Brett David Potter

    Thanks Travis! Very interesting, thanks for sharing the whole thing! I’ll have to read the rest of it… I’ve only read “Orthodoxy” and the St. Francis bio by Chesterton. Art as the “signature” of the uniquely human… I like that.

    It seems that for Chesterton, if we try to trace the artistic impulse all the way back, we come to a kind of epistemic boundary when it comes to the separation of man from animal; (hu)man is (hu)man as far back as it goes, and animals are animals, and that is where our knowledge ends. I still wonder, though, if it is possible to develop a different kind of “theological anthropology” regarding this primal separation, where what we think of as the “human” emerged over time through a process of what Karl Rahner called “ensoulment” (or “hominisation”). [Though of course this is potentially exactly the type of “slow and smooth” development Chesterton is arguing against here!] This is something I’d like to explore further, still something I’m thinking through… but I certainly agree with Chesterton that humans are made in the image of God in a way that sets us apart from our simian cousins.

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