It may not be Catholic, but the art of the San Bushman was deeply spiritual in nature - and shows the Holy Spirit's mysterious preparation for the Gospel in other cultures.
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at various forms of art, and so far, we have been talking about works that are visibly Christian. Is it possible however, to look at a work that is not visibly religious in content from a Catholic perspective? In order to find out, we are going to look at the pre-historic cave paintings of the San Bushmen as the focal point of this week’s discussion to close our sessions together.
The San Bushmen were pre-agricultural hunter-gathers that originated across Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Angola. The surviving San today live in the Kalahari Desert and are in fact the indigenous people of Southern Africa, having lived there over tens of thousands of years. Their rock art stretches across that span.
David Lewis-Williams is a professor of rock art research, and his work – as well as that of others – has overturned a prevalent 19th century belief that rock art is simple and crude, and, especially with regard to the San art, that its exquisite aesthetic value is little more than “art for art’s sake.” The infinite care taken to create such a variety of meticulous images (many of them cameo-sized) alone indicates that they were of immense value to the San – they were a community with complex thoughts and ideas; real people asking real questions about the world around them. Indeed, in some books, the works of the San are described as “paintings of the spirit.”
San belief, of course, will be pagan to the Christian tradition. However, a Church document entitled “The Declaration on the Church’s relation to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Ætate) states that from ancient times to the present day, “there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that unseen force” and even an acknowledgment of a supreme deity. The Church “rejects nothing of those things which are true and holy in these religions” because although there may be much in them that stand in contrast to Catholicism – which the Church does not uphold – those aspects that are “true and holy… reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens everyone.” So is there anything useful for us in San rock art in terms of a Catholic perspective?
San rock art is not a naïve, simple art, nor is it a snapshot of the daily life of the people. We know from interviews with the existing San, which have taken place from the 19th century onwards (and from modern research techniques), that rock art should not be regarded as a blank canvas on to which the San could paint whatever they wanted. The rock face represented an interface between this world and the spiritual realm. It is evident that dancing shamans may use the images, which they believe have a “potency” of their own, and therefore have been used over the vast rivers of time again and again.
This is where our Catholic perspective begins. Needless to say, it is implausible to condense the immense research into rock art by the various scholars into this small article – I could not even begin to summarize it adequately. However, given the understanding of the rock interface, we can already see the link to Catholic Church teaching. The beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) informs us that “in many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour” (28).
The CCC asserts that this is such universal behavior, that the human person can rightly be called a “religious being”, and as we shall see, the San art goes a long way to prove this.
Now look closely at the image itself. The eland is a spiral horned antelope common to that region. Take some time to appreciate its realism – the gentle flow of the lines, the softness of the color, and the graceful poise of the animal. Ask yourself how it might be represented by artists today using a rock surface to work upon. I would seriously doubt that it could have been rendered more gracefully or any more beautiful.
However, the animals depicted in the images are not simple copies from nature. Based upon the interviews and modern research techniques, we can posit with a degree of certainty that the San art was “religious” in its context. The animals were representations of “otherness” – for instance, the eland above was associated with good, most likely a good shaman (Lewis-Williams acknowledges that “shaman” is an unsatisfactory translation; it is rather a person, who, “on behalf of the community enters an altered state of consciousness to heal the sick, see into the future, control the weather, visit the supernatural realm,” etc.). Lions, on the other hand were associated with darkness, sickness, death, and destruction. They were widely understood as the bearer of malevolent shamans who came during the night to wreak their havoc. Based upon the San interviews, the malevolent shaman, just like the lion, would be prowling around in the darkness (hoken or “dangerous darkness”) just outside the firelight. In Lewis-William’s own words, “If not the devil himself, they probably represent a shaman who, ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may desire.’”
The similarity between thisand the content of 1 Peter 5:8 is remarkable. Indeed, the Church teaches that some of the content of the world’s religions, stretching back over history, are in fact preparation for the Gospel. Consider the words of the Church document of the Second Vatican Council, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium), chapter 2, paragraph 16:
How extraordinary is it, then, that the beliefs of the San with regard to the lion, captured in the words above, portray the very words of 1 Peter?
Thus we can ratify the claim of the Catechism. From the dawn of the human race, through these images we can say with confidence that the human person is a religious being – and we can go a little further still. Church teaching tells us the person is created capax Dei (open to God) – we are created to seek the Lord out. Nothing can go to assert this more than the human person evidently worshipping a higher power, being able to communicate with this higher power and handing on these traditions through symbolism in art. Can you begin to see how this very ancient art form can reveal certain truths contained within Church teaching?
There is one more point that I would like to share with you to see what you think. Note in the image the white or bright line just above and outlining the body of the eland. If you look at other images in Google by the San, you will find that only a few of them are painted in this way. Do you remember that we discussed in the session on iconography how the light source within the work came from the holy figure itself, representing grace and uncreated light? This is perhaps an issue that those involved in rock art research are not really aware of – if the eland is associated with good and the image is, for want of a better word, a divine conduit (at least a conduit to the spiritual world), and we have here a representation of a good shaman who can heal and protect the people, surely we are looking at a preparation for the grace of God.
Lastly, I would say that a Catholic perspective can be applied to any work of art – even in the negative, which we haven’t had time to cover. Art offers a wealth of a tradition and the beauty of this resides in the fact that the language can be understood by anyone. It’s a bit like faith: once the veil has been lifted there is no going back. Thank you for sharing these last few weeks.
If you are interested in learning more about this subject, the UK-based International Catholic distance learning college, the Maryvale Institute, runs a one year program covering the very things that we have been talking about. They also have a study centre in the United States. Look them up on line to find out more.