Lost Spiritual Messages in Ancient Art

Posted by Adam Hernandez on
Photo by Nutopia Ltd
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 

This episode discusses many examples of mankind's relationship between God and Art throughout the ages. I will be concentrating on the inspiration and fascination I found in the Lion Man segment. You will definitely love this episode.

Lion Man is an incredible artifact from around 35,000 years ago that raises interesting questions about mankind's development of an imagination and his relationship with God and spirituality. I was not aware of its existence until watching the show. The information in this episode (and a little bit of Google searching after watching it) has really changed my understanding of the roles that art and spirituality have played on each other's development. I would argue you could not have one without the other.

Found in a cave in Southern Germany, Lion Man is a small carving made from a single piece of mammoth ivory. It is a masterfully carved depiction of a man standing upright. He has a smooth torso, broad shoulders, and strong arms that have striations, perhaps representing decorative body paint or tattoos and scarification. He has powerful legs and human-like feet.

Whatever its actual meaning, I believe this piece embodies mankind's first attempts at depicting and expressing an inner yearning for more.

What makes this small human like statue truly peculiar though is his head, which is that of a lion. It curves up from the shoulders seamlessly and sits atop the body staring forward with a powerful and mysterious gaze. It is our oldest known piece of artwork depicting some sort of being that does not actually exist in our natural world. We can assume it is perhaps symbolic of something else. A deity? A spirit? The personification of a vision had by its creator? Whatever its actual meaning, I believe this piece embodies mankind's first attempts at depicting and expressing an inner yearning for more. Maybe with each pass of their tool carving away at that piece of mammoth tusk, Lion Man's creator was also carving away at the shroud separating them from the spiritual side of a universe they were beginning to discover.

The piece becomes even more astounding when considering the time, place and culture of its creation. This is from the Second Ice Age and man was still a hunter-gatherer. It would take an incredible amount of time, skill, and energy to create an impressively detailed piece like this. The fact that it was carved with only simple flint tools truly floors me, but what I find even more fascinating is the imagination and sense of purpose that possessed the artist who created it. To expand on this, a quote from experimental archeologist Wulf Hein, who carved a replica of Lion Man using only the same tools that would have been available to the people who made it: 

"I made a replica of the famous Lion Man from elephant ivory which was legally imported. Yeah, the most time consuming part of the work was setting free the arms because I had to take a very tiny tool and make grooves like this and just scratching like this and just scratch and scratch and you always take away a very, very small amount of ivory so it was hours, hours and days and days and weeks of scratching. Must have been taking the original artist about 450 or 500 hours.
I don't know. If you do this a whole summer or a whole winter through, you can't go hunting, you can't go fishing, you can't do nothing because you work all day on it so I guess it was a real artist who made this. And he was set free by his community only to do this piece of artwork."

Both art and spirituality were needed to create Lion Man. In order to make a piece like this, the artist needed a grasp on not only artistic concepts and craftsmanship but also on spiritual understanding and imagination. It would seem to me that Lion Man's creator and the group he or she belonged to saw the importance in this. That is why they made the time to do it.

Whether it was all the artist did over a shorter period of time, while other members of the tribe took care of survival essentials, or if it was slowly chipped away at in between hunts over the course of months and years, this piece of artwork was made. And it has survived until now. But why did it survive? And what message does it have for us from the past? If we ever hope to have an answer, I think we have to look deeper into the spiritual side of the universe and be open to whatever we might find.

Adam HernandezAdam HernandezPhoto by Chris CasellaAdam Hernandez is a self taught artist from the Bronx. He has exhibited in several cities across the US and is published in numerous books. His characters exist in the Land Of Thunderbirds, a mythical world he created to tell the stories of heroes and gods. ahernandezart.com | FB: /ahernandezart | Insta:@ahernandezart

Related | Learn more about Adam and his work in the WOSU series Broad & High

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