Let me introduce The Sorcerer discovered in 1960 in Ariège, France. He has been regarded a mythical figure, a shaman, leading a ritual dance. The fact that he directly looks at us as if he is interrupted, is remarkable. Why is he doing that? My method of getting to know him better is through drawing him and paying attention to what I observe during the process of drawing. This I combine with reading about him. I will never be able to see the Sorcerer, thus I fully depend on reference photos and interpretations by the man who set out to show the world all cave painting by sketching, Henri Breuil.
By looking at these two images, a controversy becomes immediately manifest; is Henri Breuil’s drawing a reliable copy or is it his interpretation? This has been hotly debated but I won’t go into this. I trust Jean Clottes who has asserts Breuil’s drawing after having seen the original perhaps over 20 times over many years.
Breuil’s drawing is however problematic, even if it is a truthful copy of the original rock art drawing. I start to draw the Sorcerer, scaling it up in size, working on his head. It is said that the sorcerer isn’t a shaman, it isn’t a human; it is a composite figure bringing together many drawings of Ariège cave. Here we see, the antlers of a stag, the ears of a wolf, the face of a deer, the eyes of an owl, the beard of a bison, the claws of a bear, the pose and the tail of a rearing horse, and the (hind) legs and genitalia of a man.
Drawing Sorcerer’s deer face, I run into trouble with the position of his eyes and ears. The position of the neck in relation to the head and ears is flawed. Equally flawed is the neck of the body in relation to the en-profile position of the face. A face that looks at us over one shoulder would show only one ear, the other would be obscured, visually missing, which is not the case with the Sorcerer. The antlers seem to be incorrectly positioned as well; in case a (horse or human) body is rearing to the front and the head is turned, looking to the viewer full face, then the front antler would seem bigger and the antler more positioned to the back would look a tiny bit smaller, as is not the case with Breuil’s drawing. In fact, the back antler looks bigger! This leads to the conclusion that the head is distorted. Either the painter had this in mind or as cave art is palimpsest art, meaning that paints are re-used, altered and traces of early paintings are often visible in later versions, the compositional flaws could be caused by many artists working at this piece of rock art over a long period of time.
The second feeling of unease that I experience whilst drawing the Sorcerer is related to the difference in style and skill regarding the head and the body. The body of the Sorcerer is very well done. We see a well proportioned horse body with a waving tail and strong human legs. But what about the head? The bison beard has no movement; the antlers seems to be done by somebody lacking drawing skills. Thus I wonder how this composite head would look like (drawn by me in this case, but I invite you to do the same). Whilst drawing all the animal attributes, I observe that this composite figure has portrayed very well chosen and formidable animal qualities. Is this portrait then an obituary to a very charismatic shaman?
The Sorcerer shape-shifts in many animals, most of them mammals. With the superior eyes of an owl, he perhaps isn’t looking at us, but trying to find his way back, through the dark, to his human body and to his community who has gathered deep inside Ariège cave.
In 2017, I followed ‘Who were the Celts?’ at Oxford Department for Continuing Education. I enjoyed reading an essay on Iron Age mirrors. ‘Mirrors in the British Iron Age: Performance, Revelation and Power, by Melanie Giles and Jody Joy. It inspired me immensely.
Iron Age 50 BC – AD 50
Found in 1908 near Desborough
After reading about Iron Age mirrors, I set out to draw the Iron Age Desborough mirror. Through drawing I would gain more insights into its decorations and its function. Iron Age mirrors that were beautifully decorated and made of bronze and iron were found in graves of high status Iron Age women.
I like to say something about high status Iron Age women. One might think ‘high status’ refers to rich women or wives of rulers or kings. But although both accounts can be correct, high status refers in the Iron Age more to women being leaders or shamans themselves.
Working on the patterns of Desborough Iron Ago Mirror
Detail of Desborough Iron Age Mirror
The essay discusses how Iron Age metallurgy and how a whole community was involved in the making process. Also, it discusses social relations, grave goods, and the compass drawn motifs of repeated and distinctive forms arranged into intricate and flee flowing designs. Fascinating, to say in the least. The question begs why were mirrors used as grave goods? The easiest answer does not always work, one being that the Iron Age lady was buried with her belongings. Perhaps the mirrors were not possessions but (diplomatic) gifts. And why would a deceased lady take a mirror, she wouldn’t need it in her afterlife, or would she?
Imagine looking into this mirror. The effect of seeing your face in the reflective properties of the plate, disrupted or enhanced by its La Tene decorations would …yes, what would you see?
Giles and Joy describe how the decorations on the mirrors are not only used to deceive the eye, but also to reinforce the reflective qualities of the mirror plate. The anthropologist Alfred Gell points out that Iron Age mirrors could have expressed political power and legitimise associations with the supernatural. This is hard for us to understand but in order to understand what Gell states requires us to imagine a time in which you only saw your reflection in (restless or calm) water, in shiny objects, like copper, bronze, silver or gold. How special such mirrors would be! Imagine now that next to not frequently seeing your reflection, you were raised to notice all sorts of shapes in water, smoke, old trees, and rocks. We have a clear sense of what we see is real and what is imagination, but for ancient people perhaps seeing was just seeing, whether it was imagination or fact. If the under-upper and middle world aren’t having hard borders, perhaps seeing imaginative, hallucinative and factual weren’t compartmentalised either.
When I suffer a migraine aura, I see things that do not exist and things that I need to see are gone. I can be passed in the streets by somebody who is missing his head. Perhaps looking into an Iron Age mirror yields a similar effect as having a migraine aura because Iron Age mirrors have blanked out spaces and thus provide viewers with a disorienting and distorted image of themselves. Yet, an Iron Age mirror has not only missing parts (blanked out spaces, decorated with a basket woven texture) but carefully chosen synchronised but flow-like playful, witty, and mischievous botanical and animal patterns. What effect would looking into a shiny plate, with a deliberate disorienting pattern have? Here the essay explains more about the ‘technology of enchantment‘ and goes deeper into psychological war-fare though powerful visceral and visual effects. It informs the reader about the Fang People of Gabon who used hallucinogens before looking into mirrors, and states that these Iron Age mirrors were not real mirrors (not for checking hair or make-up). In fact, the mirrors played a role in rituals to release the soul to its afterlife.
During the time that I spent drawing this Iron age mirror, I tried many things. I tried to project my face behind the decorations, fusing my face and the decorations and then see all sorts of animals. Of course, this is a very poor attempt to understand its magic. But I have to do it with a large doses of imagination and hours of drawing as there is no way I would be able to hold the mirror up and have a look in it. And even if I could do that, there wouldn’t be a ritual that would be helpful performed by an Iron Age shaman who would be experienced in travelling between worlds. (Or brainwaves, or different stages of consciousness, whatever way you might define shamanistic journeying).
My concluding thoughts are that by looking into this mirror, in an Iron Age ritual ceremony, with an Iron Age cognitive mindset, maybe, as a dying lady of high status, I would find great comfort in seeing my old face being obscured with these splendid swirling decorations. I would be calm as I have seen, thanks for my migraines, often enough things that aren’t there and fail to notice things that are there. I would probably enter theta brainwaves the same way as after sitting down for a longer time in meditation or -more Iron Age style- looking into the smoky swirls of an open campfire. I might start seeing my face, combined with the swirly flowing embellishments turning into animal and ancestral spirits. One has to understand that the Iron Age was full of spirits, spirits we have carefully abandoned from our modern life. But just as they have been forgotten, it doesn’t mean these spirits aren’t there. I would most certainly find an ancestral spirit that would ‘present’ itself as so much of my own face would be blanked out, and only essential and familiar facial lines would still linger in the reflective image. Or perhaps, I would see a beautiful stag or other horned mammal, and experience it as my guiding spirit animal. Perhaps I would see the hybrid human-animal dressed-up shaman of the village giving me instructions to journey to the Other-world.
All in all, it would perhaps release my soul into an in-between world in which I would be able to project comfortably to what I would need to see. I would probably have been fasting during the last days of my life, I would be susceptible for my imaginative mind to dominate and thus the softly and dreamily reflecting mirror would get a transitional quality and function. Or perhaps I would look and whisper some wise words, like Tibetan shamans who look into mirrors to see the future and the past, wise words that would be helpful to my tribe. The Fang people of Gabon use mirrors to contact their ancestors. Do Iron Age mirrors have a similar function?
Obviously, many things become possible should such a highly valued mirror be available to a tribe. It is therefore that there many more than this Desborough mirror only. One by one these mirrors and their fascinating embellishments are showing us that Iron Age metallurgy and shamanism practises were interrelated and that highly decorated ‘magic’ Iron Age mirrors were much appreciated by Iron Age peoples.
P.S. During the hours that I was my drawing of the Desborough mirror, I travelled between worlds too. I had to descend from my creative, spiritual plane of manifesting ideas to the mundane world of running errands. As the trees were shedding their leaves, I noticed many decomposed leaves with open parts resembling mini Iron Age mirrors scattered on the street. If you can’t enjoy looking into the Desborough Iron Age mirror at the British Museum, don’t despair, mini versions are freely available every autumn.
Art cards are available at Etsy (and can be framed as small memories to this exquisite mirror):
The two bison of Lascaux (Dordogne, France) are eye-catching cave paintings made about 17,000 years ago. I liked them because they are testosterone filled beasts but at the same time, they look cute with their large, round bodies and skinny legs.
During my study of this painting, I found five interesting features. First, the two bison have open mouths. Their open mouths play a big role in the story that is portrayed. Combined with their posture, one almost must conclude that the bison are running away with great urgency. Their open mouths seem to be the result of a fight or a sudden shock that makes them stampede in the opposite direction. For what they are running away, we don’t know for sure, but we may assume they run away from each other, hence the opposite directions, perhaps after a fight over dominance.
But perhaps not. Very few of us see bison frequently or for a long time. Nature documentaries on which most of us rely to see these magnificent beasts often focus on fighting bison because their fights are epic. That fighting picture is imprinted in our minds. But surely most of their lifetime bison do not fight. An alternative thought could be that the shaman/artist, being in a trance state, has seen the bison appearing from the same place of the wall, appearing from a ‘thin place’, a portal from and to the Other-or Underworld, hence the overlapping backsides of the bison.
Another aspect that is perhaps only visible to a trained artist eye is that of foreshortening. Foreshortening is a technical and artistic skill that is clearly visible here. Should you not know what foreshortening is, have a look at God by Michelangelo. Foreshortening is to portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
Now have a look at how the shaman/artist has drawn the bison, running in the opposite direction. Clearly, they are running towards the viewer, to both sides of the viewer, not away from the viewer. Their back-bodies are smaller in proportion than their front bodies; this is done to enhance the impression that the bison are running towards the viewer. Also, look at their hind legs. The bull on the left stands closer to the viewer than the bull on the right; his legs are a bit lower positioned creating the illusion he is closer to the front. In addition, the right bison’s back is visible above the left bison, which adds to the impression that the right bison is further away. This is very well executed and in full respect of the shape of the legs of the bison.
But this is not all. The shaman/artist has used not only anatomical positioning (legs and tails) and foreshortening to create spatial depth, he/she has also used red pigments on the body (hexagon) as to create a highlight which enhances the foreshortening technique in creating depth.
I like to mention another feature, however I am not in the position to check this in vivo. The two front legs of both bison that do the stampeding are distanced by a small unpainted area from the front bodies of the bison. Such detached front legs add to the impression of wild stampeding beasts. It is as if their front leg is moving so quickly that the shaman/artist can only suggest the wild movements by positioning the leg a bit away from the body. Last, have a look at the heavy fur of the wild beasts. The hair streams in the wind due to their escape from danger.
The shaman/artist who has painted the two bison has done it splendidly. Only the sound of the stampeding seems to be missing but perhaps the shaman created that sound with the help of drums or prehistoric peoples created the sound of stampeding inside the cave themselves. Both drum and stampeding people must have sounded impressive inside a cave, especially when the cave walls throw back the echoes.
For my first study I have focussed on colours; prehistoric cave paintings have beautiful ochre colours. I made a rough pastel sketch to get insight in which colours I needed.
My next study was about finding essential lines. Which are the most essential lines that make up a bison? Which lines shape a bison and set it apart from an ox, or from a Przewalski’s horse? Playing with the lines has resulted in an abstract version of Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’.
For my final drawing, I have built the beasts with layers of heavy pigment coloured pencils (Faber-Castle and Luminance).
After finishing my third drawing, the result surprised me because my bison resemble Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’ but are very different. So, let’s talk about how this study led to a different drawing despite applying foreshortening techniques and staying close to Lascaux’s Crossed Bison composition. Why does my drawing differ so much? The answers lie in the open mounts and fur of the bison.
My bison haven’t stopped fighting because their mouths are peacefully closed mouths and their fur isn’t wildly shaken by their stampeding. One might assume that an open or closed mouth should not make such difference, but it certainly does. My bison don’t seem to run away for each other or for danger. On the contrary, they look at you naughty and even innocently, like two playing brothers or friends.
The open mouths of the Lascaux bison thus are essential to the story told by the cave painting. The skilful and admirable Lascaux’s artists drew perfect anatomy, showed highly developed artistic techniques, and even better, they told a story of two animals full urgency, perhaps because of hunting or fighting. The gasping for air during a fight or flight, due to running away with their heavy bodies make Lascaux’s bison seem to be in great and urgent stress. By closing their mouths and neglecting shaken-up fur -I only altered two details- I have created bison that seem to prance and romp about happily, perhaps even playfully.
All paintings tell stories. What a difference small changes make! To me, this supports the thesis that the shamans/artists of Lascaux painted all details of their cave paintings intentionally. They painted a story with supporting details. Change the details; change the story. By studying this cave painting, by re-creating it, and changing two details, I have brought to light how detailed this cave painting is and how essential details are for the story that is graphically told by Lascaux’s artists. The story itself remains a mystery. But at least we can guess a bit better by paying attention to all deliberately added details. Details are the building blocks of stories that are told from one generation to the next. Details safeguard us for altering stories due to forgetfulness, preferences, or imagination.
The oldest (Celtic) god is Cernunnos, depicted with the antlers of a stag, seated cross-legged, associated with animals, and holding or wearing a torc (is a large rigid or stiff neck ring in metal, made either as a single piece or from strands twisted together).
Not much is known about Cernunnos but interpretations identify him as a beneficent god of nature, life, or fertility. I find it interesting that Cernunnos is half man, half stag. We clearly like to relate ourselves to such a magnificent animal. It looks well built yet elegant, noble and humble, strong but vulnerable.
I remember driving on Island of Mull and being redirected due to roadworks. As we continued our journey on small roads, all the sudden a huge stag stood in front of us. My husband stopped the car and for a moment we looked in awe to this mighty animal. It looked at us and we looked at him with instant respect, so close and intense was the encounter, that we can still recall the moment, decades later. It will linger in our memory probably forever.
Stag Drawing copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Stag Drawing Antlers shapshifting into birds that fly to the moon. Copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
It is therefore that I have drawn stags and deer often. The challenge is always to capture the strength and elegance. Recently, I drew a full stag but I was disappointed because it didn’t stand out. It had not the mightiness that I was looking for. I then applied the ‘Celtic’ method of looking which lines and shadows were essential and which I should leave out. Say 90% of my initial lines were erased and as a result I not only ended up with a more powerful stag, the space that became available allowed me to work on applying beautiful lines and figures (see how the eyes of the stag are also birds). Thus, the stag is complied of many seemingly loose elements, connecting and giving it form.
I placed it in an ancient Upperworld, Middle world, and Underworld. The Upperworld shows the sun and the moon and the antlers of the stag shapeshift into birds that fly away, symbolizing a shamanistic journey to the Upperworld. The Middle world is shown as tree branches and tree trunks. The Underworld can be entered by visiting an ancient burial site, or being close to dolmens, as is the belief of ancient peoples. I knitted all worlds together by using patterned borders.
Artist Info: I used Derwent Graphite H7 and H3 only, on Winsor & Newton cold press paper. Using only Derwent H pencils gives a drawing very soft tones. Personally, I favour this, but others might judge that it needs more enforcement of darker areas. A few small prints of my drawing show a more enhanced or ‘harder’ version. There are many ‘Celtic’ pattern vectors freely available but I decided to design my own irregular patterns.