There is a world record for everything, even if we don’t know it for sure. At one time or another, something happened that had never happened before and that made it the first – the very first – the undisputed champ of creation.
Here we’re not talking about “most plates balanced on someone’s chin” or anything made for Guinness. We’re talking about cold hard tangible art or at least, what we can find. What’s the oldest painting in the world? What’s the oldest sculpture in the world? And so on. You get the idea!
While a lot of what’s out there is likely restricted by “the oldest discovered” – keyword “discovered” – and thus may or may not preclude whether it is literally the oldest, you will find some interesting facts on the prevailing wisdom for some of these tasty art history morsels. Since this subject is so vast and can be explored by different media, in this issue we’re only exploring the world’s oldest paintings and one very old statue. In weeks to come, we will explore more media and examples before consolidating everything down into a master list.
Let’s start with the oldest – “Cupules”
According to ListVerse.com, “cupules” (cup-marks) are sometimes accompanied by linear grooves carved in stone. They are the “oldest examples of prehistoric rock art found to date.”
With the oldest example reigning from the Bhimbetka Caves in central India, the cupules in these caves likely date as far back as the Lower Paleolithic period.
“While the site hasn’t been radiocarbon-dated yet,” the article reads, “Acheulian-era artifacts of India are thought to be about as old as similar finds found in Africa and Europe at an astounding 290,000 years old.”
That’s over a quarter of one-million…
World’s Oldest Paintings
Now are we talking cave, canvas or oil here? Since each have played a major role in the evolution of art, why not all of the above?
Cave paintings get a little more conceptual. Cupules are great, but they arguably lack tangible form. While they do demonstrate a form of abstract thinking, cave paintings represent something a little closer to home – a little more thoughtful. Not to mention, you need more than a scratching implement to create them. They require paint, which requires mixing chemicals, another step up.
The Oldest Cave Painting in the World
Without further ado, put a number in your head. How old is the oldest cave painting? Think, think… Is it 20,000, maybe 30,000 years old?
A lot of us probably start by falling back on the familiar Chauvet Cave in France, a favorite of art historians, archaeologists or anyone with a little inquiry in them. But according to the New York Times, the world’s oldest recorded cave painting can actually now be found in Indonesia. Brace for the age, because it is a bit surprising!
You are looking at a 39,900-year-old relic. For number junkies, that is very, very old. Almost mind-bendingly old when put into context.
Considering that the sum of recorded history started in ancient Mesopotamia and the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt about 3,500 BC (that’s just 5,500 years ago) and one has to wonder… Just how much of our art history has been lost to the sands of time?
Intriguing thought. But before we spiral down a wormhole of speculation into which no answers currently exist, let’s switch gears.
How about the oldest painting on canvas in the world?
Mona Lisa smiles? Yes, we naturally look her way.
While indeed, the Mona Lisa is quite old, she is not the oldest. Nor is she on canvas. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506, our world famous lady is about 513 years old and was actually painted on wood – oil on white Lombardy poplar panel to be exact. Fun facts like that come in handy for trivia, so at least pocket that for later if you didn’t already know it.
If you skip past paper, which the Yahoo! Answers’ “Samantha J” did by tilting her hat to China (the inventors of paper), you are left with the use of canvas beginning in the 16th century.
“Artists began to use canvas around about 1500 and the earliest reasonably well-known artist I can find who used it was Giovanni Bellini.” Samantha J wrote. “Around 5% of his works are on canvas, whereas Titian (his pupil) used canvas for around 95% of his work.”
Call Yahoo! Answers unscholarly if you will, but it is one of the largest websites in the world so we’ll roll with it. If you know of one older, please share in the comments. Like history, information on these types of topics and riddled with holes and what history tells us.
How about the oldest oil paintings in the world?
Turning over to LiveScience.com (who doesn’t love this site?), “Oil paintings have been found in caves behind the two ancient colossal Buddha statues destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, suggesting that Asians — not Europeans — were the first to invent oil painting.”
The article continues to say that while most textbooks pin the arrival of oil painting to the 15th Century in Europe, experiments conducted by the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) show that the oil paintings in question were made of oil hundreds of years before the European emergence of the media.
To elaborate, the piece also makes a few concessions. First, citing a quote from researcher Yoko Taniguchi, “drying oils” were used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as cosmetics and medicines. Also, drying oils have also been identified in Bamian caves painted in the mid-seventh century “with oil painting techniques, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils.”
Before we summarize the whole article, just run over and read it yourself. If nothing less, it demonstrates the uncertainty and ever-changing nature of these types of discoveries, which are less fact than placeholder-history until more is known and researched. For now (but of course, perhaps forever), these are the oldest oil paintings discovered.
The World’s Oldest Statue
Human interaction with wood dates way back. Think of the discovery of fire, and almost certainly wood played a part. Right?
It’s not a stretch to imagine that once we developed tools, woodworking wasn’t far behind. The Shigir Idol is 11,000 years old according to USA Today, making it the “world’s oldest wooden statue.” Just looking at this idol, one may conjecture that this wasn’t their first rodeo. The very first wooden sculptures likely would have been a little less detailed or grand. While that is total conjecture, it stands on common sense. We all need to learn to walk before we run, and this sculpture looks like a pretty steady jog at the least.
Metallurgy emerged later in human history, so that is a topic of intrigue for us. When did people begin working artistically with metal? In the next issue, we will explore that angle and more.
Feel free to share additional ideas in the comments!