Explore the Fresco of the Big Cats

The End Chamber houses the major work of the Chauvet Cave: a monumental fresco considered the most exemplary of European Paleolithic art

Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Chauvet Cave was fully occupied by Paleolithic people from 36,000 to 29,000 years ago. They decorated it with animal symbols, abstract signs, and sometimes human beings (using handprints, hand stencils, and triangle symbols). 

The Horses Fresco by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

As one progresses towards the rear of the cave, the cave art becomes more and more rich, abundant, naturalistic, and precise. The apotheosis (humans depicted like gods) is reached in the End Chamber of the Chauvet Cave, where the masterpiece of European Paleolithic art can be found.

The Fresco of the Big Cats spans over 50ft in length. The left section, the central alcove and its perimeter, and the right section have the highest concentration of drawings.

The Fresco of FelinesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two large groups of animals can be seen in this left section of the fresco.

The left wall

This part of the fresco includes five heads of big cats, dominated by a series of large red dots. All these figures are red and partially faded.

These red figures are partly or completely covered by black drawings. Here you can see four lions and a reindeer with six legs.

The group of black woolly rhinoceroses seems to be a complete drawing.

At least 17 rhinoceroses in this drawing are created with a similar technique.

This drawing of a rhinoceros is unique in European Paleolithic parietal art. The color on the body of all the rhinos have faded and some have a ventral band drawn around the waist of the rhinos, characteristic of the Aurignacian style.

Left side of the Feline Fresco by L. Guichard/Perazio/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Look closer at the rhinoceros horns, which amplify a sense of movement. Also look at the back lines, which have been drawn to look as if there were several rhinos one behind the other. 

The Paleolithic people also highlighted the contours of animals by engraving them with flint. 

Wooly Rhinoceros (Chauvet Cave) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Center of the Fresco

The Fresco of the Big Cats was created around a central point, occupied by a horse with a black head. The height of the entrance to this niche is about 1.70m (2m inside).          

The niche is topped by the representation of a mammoth on the left (note the ball-shaped paws), surrounded by two woolly rhinoceroses (of which only the head of one is visible) and a bison.

The black-headed central horse (with a visible eye) perfectly matches the shape of the wall. On the right edge of the niche, we can see a small mammoth with a small trunk and small ears.

Below, there are one or two rhinos nested above an animal whose head has faded.

The right edge of the niche is occupied by four bison heads (note the horns and tufts of fur). These bison seem to be part of a herd being hunted by the big cats. 

In fact, the herd of bison is visible from the a side profile (right) and three-quarter profile, and then on the ridge of the cave. This shows how the artist took advantage of the shape of the wall.          

Central Piece of the Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The right section

This monumental fresco in the End Chamber is dominated by a group of lions. This hunting scene is characteristic of the dynamic and  naturalistic art of the Chauvet Cave. 

The right section

This surface of the Fresco is occupied by 14 big cats, probably mating males and females. This images is similar to the African lions of today, who combine their forces to hunt big game.         

Felines (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The fresco continues to the right with a rhinoceros that is noticeable from red lines emerging from its mouth, highlighting its two horns.         

Another characteristic animal figure in this fresco is a bison viewed from the side but whose head, viewed from the front, occupies one edge of the wall.  Below, two big cats are drawn on a concavity and the bottom is partly blackened. Do you think this was a voluntary act or was it erased by humans?

To the right of the image is a profile of the Sorcerer's Pendant, which represents a half bison/half woman. This shows the left leg of the woman and a buffalo head (with eye, tuft of fur, and horns visible).    

Right side of Feline Fresco by L. Guichard/Perazio/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Under the Sorcerer's Pendant, in the overhanging rock gallery that joins the main wall, we see three big cats (including an animal with a strange head). To the left of the bison is another lion head occupying the top of the Pendant. 

Each big cat head seems to have its own expression. The one to the left has a strange appearance that can be interpreted as a lion head.

Finally, you can see a very rare representation in European parietal art: a musk ox (or ovibos). We can find the first representation of this animal on the deep wall of the Skull Room.

Between the musk ox and the Sorcerer's Pendant is a beautiful big cat head. Its left eye is extended by a drip of charcoal. Do you think these engravings were made with a tool or are they bear scratches? 

The Sorcerer's Pendant has a lighter shade than the rest of the wall. Upon entering this chamber, the eye is quickly caught by this, which we can imagine was giving a special symbolic status to the image from its position in front of the fresco.         

Finally, the right end of the Fresco of the Big Cats is marked by two large bison (over 3 ft long each). The first (visible in the photo) seems to be layered over the first animal profile. The second (not visible in the photo) is underneath.         

Venus - End Room (Chauvet cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Note the tuft of fur between the lyre-shaped horns. The muzzle and the eye were etched on top with flint.

Big Bisons (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This End Chamber has this magnificent fresco composed of around 110 graphic animals. However, the other walls also have drawings, engravings, and hand stencils.

According to Yannnik le Guillou and Jean Clottes, prehistorians and members of the team studying the Chauvet Cave, this vast chamber does not seem to have been visited much by people. They base this on the residues of charcoal still in place at the base of the wall and the lack of trampled areas.

The End Chamber sums up the spirit behind the cave: naturalistic animal scenes, the use and intersecting of complex techniques, the over-representation of dangerous animals (big cats, mammoths, rhinoceros), and finally the utilization of the topography of the walls, not only used as simple supporting media but fully exploited to dramatize scenes of life.  

We can see that animals were the focus of Paleolithic preoccupation since they have an overwhelming presence in this type of art. The Chauvet Cave displays stories of our ancestors history.    

Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

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