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Twelve Days of Christmas Day 2 | On Creation: Lascaux Cave and the Birth of Christ

“The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (25 December). This period is also known as Christmastide and Twelvetide. The Twelfth Night of Christmas is always on the evening of 5 January, but the Twelfth Day can either precede or follow the Twelfth Night according to which Christian tradition is followed. Twelfth Night is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany (6 January) and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.”
The hands stencilled on the walls of the Lascaux cave in south-western France advertise inventiveness, and mark a new critical distance between mind and body. The painters sprayed colour from inside their mouths. Rather than waiting, like Adam, for an infusion of the divine breath, they exhaled that vital spirit, which left its trace in an image. The mind stood back, contemplating the handiwork it had designed. The surrealist George Bataille declared that Lascaux marked the birth of art; more than that, he thought that it announced the rebirth of man, who here demonstrated his ability to give ideas form and to communicate them. Bataille specified, in an essay published in 1955, that this creative feat had come “out of nothing’. Homo sapiens overtook the animals by his won efforts, with no need of God’s help. 
Apologists for Christianity had some frantic arguing to do if they were to keep up. G. K. Chesterton, writing after the first discoveries in the Dordogne, took heart from the fact that the paintings had been examined and accredited by the Abbé Henri Breuil, an anthropologist who had taken holy orders. It became almost compulsory to refer to the French caves as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory, and Breuil – as the archaeologist Joseph Déchelette remarked – was the officiating Pope. Another priest, Abbé André Glory, helped to excavate Lascaux; unsurprisingly, sections of the site were called apse and nave, in homage to the ground-plan of cathedrals. St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton said in 1925, might have made drawings in the Dordogne ‘out of pure and saintly love of animals’, unfortunately, the bison that sheds its entrails at Lascaux later disproved this claim. Chesterton fondly related a fable about an old lady who thought that the painted cave she had heard about must have been a crèche, with coloured animals drawn on the walls as companions for sleeping babies. He paid tribute to her credulity by making up a myth of his own, which connected those dank, crumbling grottos with the manger at Bethlehem. Christ was born in a cellar, and ‘in that second creation…God also was a Cave-man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously colored, upon the wall of the world’. Those visionary pictures, Chesterton added with his own bravura, subsequently came to life. But Lascaux robbed Christianity of this cinematographic privilege. Animation ripples through the beasts on the walls; antlers of the stags are as delicate and tremulous as twigs, and the flanks of the bulls fatten as the images extend along the rugged walls. These proud energetic animals are doomed to die: Breuil supposed that the paintings were made by hunters who hoped to improved their chances by this act of sympathetic magic. Meanwhile they suggest that art is both a frightened response to our own mortality and victory over it.
CREATION: Artists, Gods & Origins by Peter Conrad