Was oil painting invented in Afghanistan, not Renaissance Europe?

This video calls itself:

A montage of paintings by Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (1385-1441) set to music from a live performance of Handel’s Messiah.

From AFP news agency:

‘World’s first oil paintings in Afghan caves’

25 January 2008

TOKYO – Forget Renaissance Europe. The world’s first oil paintings go back nearly 14 centuries to murals in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan caves, a Japanese researcher says.

Buddhist images painted in the central Afghan region, dated to around 650 AD, are the earliest examples of oil used in art history, says Yoko Taniguchi, an expert at Japan’s National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

A group of Japanese, European and US scientists are collaborating to restore damaged murals in caves in the Bamiyan Valley, famous for its two gigantic statues of the Buddha, which were destroyed by the Taleban in 2001.

In the murals, thousands of Buddhas in vermilion robes sit cross-legged, sporting exquisitely knotted hair.

Other motifs show crouching monkeys, men facing one another or palm leaves delicately intertwined with mythical creatures.

The paintings incorporate a mix of Indian and Chinese influences, and are most likely to be the works of artists traveling on the Silk Road, which was the largest trade and cultural route connecting the East and the West.

The Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute analysed 53 samples extracted from the murals. Using gas chromatography methods, the researchers found that 19 had oil in the paint.

“Different types of oil were used on the dirt walls with such a sophisticated technique that I felt I was looking right at a medieval board painting dating from 14th or 15th century Italy,” Taniguchi told AFP.

The discovery would reverse common perceptions about the origins of oil paintings.

The technique is widely believed to have emerged in Europe leading into the Renaissance, which flowered from 1400 to 1600.

Italian artist and architect Giorgio Vasari first wrote of oil painting in his book, “The Lives of the Artists,” in the mid-16th century.

Art historians, however, argue that 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck may have known of the technique because he had developed a stable varnish, although he kept it secret until his death.

“It was very impressive to discover that such advanced methods were used in murals in central Asia,” Taniguchi said.

“My European colleagues were shocked because they always believed oil paintings were invented in Europe. They couldn’t believe such techniques could exist in some Buddhist cave deep in the countryside,” she added.

Photos here.

See also here.

Spanish art: here.

Afghanistan – Crossroads Of The Ancient World, exhibition: here.


18 thoughts on “Was oil painting invented in Afghanistan, not Renaissance Europe?

  1. Afghan caves yields oldest oil paintings

    Apr 22, 2008 11:29 AM

    KABUL–Scientists said on Tuesday they have proved the world’s first oil paintings were in caves near two destroyed giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, hundreds of years before oil paint was used in Europe.

    Samples from paintings, dating from the 7th century AD, were taken from caves behind two statues of Buddha in Bamiyan blown up as un-Islamic by Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban in 2001.

    Scientists discovered paintings in 12 of the 50 caves were created using oil paints, possibly from walnut or poppy, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France said on its Web site on Tuesday.

    “This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics,” said Yoko Taniguchi, leader of the team of scientists.

    It was not until the 13th century that oil was added to paints in Europe and oil paint was not widely used in Europe till the early 15th century.

    Bamiyan was once a thriving Buddhist centre where monks lived in a series of caves carved into the cliffs by the two statues.

    The cave paintings were probably the work of artists travelling along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia to the West and show scenes of Buddhas in vermilion robes and mythical creatures, the ESRF said.

    Afghanistan’s Taliban government used dozens of explosive charges to bring down the two 6th century giant Buddhas in March 2001, saying the statues were un-Islamic.

    Later in the same year, U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government after it refused to give up al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Now work is underway to try restore the biggest of the two statues, once the tallest standing Buddha in the world, but the mammoth task could take a decade to complete.


  2. Ancient city uncovered in Afghan

    August 08 2008 at 11:55AM

    By Matthew Pennington

    Cheshm-e-Shafa, Afghanistan – Centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds on a wind-swept mountainside in northern Afghanistan where French archaeologists believe they have found a vast ancient city.

    For years, villagers have dug the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antique smugglers. Tracts of the site that locals call the “City of Infidels” look like a battleground, scarred by craters.

    But now tribesmen dig angular trenches and preserve fragile walls, working as labourers on an excavation atop a promontory.

    To the north and east lies an undulating landscape of barren red-tinted rock that was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria; to the south a still-verdant valley that leads to the famed Buddhist ruins at Bamiyan.

    Roland Besenval, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan and leading the excavation, is sanguine about his helpers’ previous harvesting of the site.

    “Generally the old looters make the best diggers,” he said with a shrug.

    A trip around the northern province of Balkh is like an odyssey through the centuries, spanning the ancient Persian empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the arrival of Islam.

    The French mission has mapped some 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region, best known for the ancient trove found by a Soviet archaeologist in the 1970s.

    The Bactrian Hoard consisted of exquisite gold jewelry and ornaments from graves of wealthy nomads, dated to the 1st century AD. It was concealed by its keepers in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul from the Taliban regime and finally unlocked after the militia’s ouster.

    The treasure, currently on exhibition in the United States, demonstrates the rich culture that once thrived here, blending influences from the web of trails and trading routes known as the Silk Road, that spread from Rome and Greece to the Far East and India.

    But deeper historical understanding of ancient Bactria has been stymied by the recent decades of war and isolation that severely restricted visits by archaeologists.

    “It’s a huge task because we are still facing the problem of looting,” said Besenval, who first excavated in Afghanistan 36 years ago and speaks the local language of Dari fluently.

    “We know that objects are going to Pakistan and on to the international market. It’s very urgent work. If we don’t do something now, it will be too late.”

    Looting was rife during the civil war of the early 1990s when Afghanistan lurched into lawlessness. Locals say it subsided under the Taliban’s hardline rule, but the Islamists’ fundamentalism took its own toll on Afghanistan’s cultural history.

    They destroyed the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan chiselled more than 1 500 years ago, and smashed hundreds of statues in the national museum simply because they portrayed the human form.

    The opening up of Afghanistan did little to curb the treasure hunters. British author Rory Stewart, who made an extraordinary solo hike across the country in 2002, wrote how poor tribesmen were systematically pillaging the remains of a lost ancient city dating back to 12th century around the towering minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan.

    State control is a little more pervasive in Balkh but still patchy. The provincial culture authority says it has just 50 guards to protect historical sites across an area nearly the size of New Jersey.

    Saleh Mohammad Khaleeq, a local poet and historian serving as the chief of the province’s cultural department, said the guards ward off looters, but concedes the only way to safeguard Afghanistan’s rich heritage is through public education.

    “People are so poor. They are just looking for ways to buy bread. We need to open their minds as they don’t know the value of their history. We have to give them that knowledge and then they will protect it,” he said.

    Villagers hired as labourers at Cheshm-e-Shafa recall how they too used to be among hundreds of locals who would scavenge the site they are now paid 230 afghanis (about R34,41) a day to excavate.

    “During the civil war everyone was involved,” said Nisarmuddin, 42, who covered his face with his turban to block the dust that a stiff breeze whipped across the mountainside.

    Nisarmuddin, a farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name, said people used to keep their finds secret so the local militia commander would not claim them.

    They could sell items of ancient pottery and glass for a few dollars to antique dealers in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which lies an hour’s drive down a bumpy track through the desert.

    One of the Afghan culture officials working at the Cheshm-e-Shafa excavation was clearly anxious that media coverage could bring unwanted attention to the site, where archaeologists have uncovered a two-meter-tall anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple originating from the Persian Empire period around the 6th century BC.

    “Hezb-e-Islami and Taliban and other extremists might use explosives and blow up this stone,” said archaeology department official Mohammed Rahim Andarab.

    Many archaeologists remain wary of working in Balkh as Islamic militancy seeps into new regions of the country. Yet the sheer breadth of history to be unearthed is enough to lure Besenval and his colleagues.

    They are also restoring an ornate 9th century AD mosque. Its stout, half-buried columns, decorated with abstract floral and geometric patterns in stucco, reflect local art but also influences from central Asia, Buddhism and Persia.

    Chahryar Adle, a Frenchman of Iranian descent with long experience in Afghanistan, said the mosque of Noh-Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, is the oldest in the country and “undoubtedly it is one of the finest in the world of this period.”

    French archaeologists have a long association with the region. They first visited in 1924 to excavate a fortress in the nearby town of Balkh.

    They hoped to find an ancient city of Alexander, whom history recounts married a local princess, Roxanne, in Bactria, in 327 BC, but left disappointed.

    The mirage of Alexander also lurks over Cheshm-e-Shafa, about 30 kilometres away. The site had a strategic location at the southern entry point into Bactria with fortifications circling an area of about 400 hectares, and its network of mountaintop lookout towers suggest it was well defended.

    A flat field the size of several football pitches that may have been a parade ground or barracks lies on the plain below. And the local nickname “City of Infidels” also suggests a foreign occupation at some time.

    So could this have been Alexander’s redoubt in Bactria, where he met the local princess Roxanne? The archaeologist allowed himself a rare foray into the realms of speculation.

    “Who knows? Maybe they married in Cheshm-e-Shafa,” Besenval said, smiling. – Sapa-AP



  3. Bamiyan Buddhas ‘once had an intensely colorful appearance’

    Afghanistan News.Net

    Saturday 26th February, 2011 (ANI)

    The Bamiyan Buddhas-blown up by the Taliban 10 years ago-once had an intensely colorful appearance, scientists have suggested.

    The two gigantic Buddha statues dating back to the 6th century looked out over the Bamiyan Valley on the Silk Road formed the centerpiece of one of the world’s largest Buddhist monastic complexes.

    Since the suppression of the Taliban regime, European and Japanese experts, working on behalf of UNESCO and coordinated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), have been endeavoring to secure the remains and restore access to the statues.

    Their findings not only contribute to our understanding of this world cultural heritage site, they may also enable the recovered parts to be reassembled:

    Coloration: “The Buddhas once had an intensely colorful appearance,” said Erwin Emmerling. His team discovered that prior to the conversion of the region to Islam, the statues were overpainted several times, presumably because the colors had faded. The outer robes, or sangati, were painted dark blue on the inside and pink, and later bright orange, on top. In a further phase, the larger Buddha was painted red and the smaller white, while the interior of the robes was repainted in a paler blue.

    The graphic reconstruction undertaken by the TUM researchers confirms ancient traditions: sources as far back as the 11th century speak of one red Buddha and one moon-white. The other parts of the figures may possibly have had a white priming coat, but that can no longer be proven beyond doubt.onstruction technique: The statues themselves were hewn out of the cliff; however, the flowing garments were formed by craftsmen using clay, which was applied in two or three layers. The remains display an astonishing degree of artistic skill.

    “The surfaces are perfectly smooth – of a quality otherwise only found in fired materials such as porcelain,” said Emmerling.

    In addition, the TUM conservators are also working on a 3D model of the cliff face that shows all of the pieces in their former position. (ANI)


  4. The International Institute for Asian Studies cordially invites you to attend the following Buddhist Studies lectures:

    Monday 19 March 2012, 15:30 – 17:00

    Venue: IIAS, Rapenburg 59, Leiden

    “The Last Gentleman: The Huichang Persecution of Buddhism as a Stimulus to the Spread of Printing” by Prof. T.H. Barrett (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Londen, United Kingdom)

    One very early reference in literary materials to printing in China is a fundraising appeal from the poet Sikong Tu for the reprinting of the Vinaya in Luoyang. This is generally dated to the 880s, but close scrutiny suggests that the early years of the tenth century provide a better context. Such scrutiny also suggests that restocking Buddhist literature after the massive losses due to persecution in the 840s formed a strong motive for the adoption of printing, despite lack of dynastic support for the new technology.

    T H Barrett studied at Yale after graduating from Cambridge, where he returned to teach in 1975 after further study in Japan; his Yale doctorate was awarded in 1978. From 1986 he was Professor of East Asian History at SOAS, London, and from 2010 has been Research Professor there. He has published extensively on the history of East Asian (primarily Chinese) religion, and latterly especially on the religious background to early Chinese printing.


  5. Recent excavations of the Buddhist remains from Mes Aynak, Afghanistan

    Date & time
    11 December 2012, 15:15 – 17:00 hrs

    Gravensteen building (room 111), Pieterskerkhof 6, Leiden

    Mes Aynak excavation
    Since the early nineteenth century, Afghanistan has become known for its Buddhist sites that date back to the early centuries of the modern era. Most famous of all are, or better, were, the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban regime in the spring of 2001. But all over the country, and especially in the east, Buddhist stupas and other remains still crown many hilltops.

    Archaeological investigations were started again soon after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, and one of the most spectacular sites is that of Mes Aynak, some 40 km south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Here the Afghan Institute of Archaeology and the French Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan (DAFA) have unearthed, since 2009, a huge site of some 40 ha that includes a number of stupas, five monastic complexes, many clay and wooden statues, some of which with the original colours, wall paintings, and a commercial centre. Hundreds of Buddha images were found, including a stone statue of Prince Siddartha.

    Copper ore concession
    The ancient settlement may have developed mainly because of the large deposits in this area of copper ore, which were mined, and the extracted copper being worked, from an early age. Unfortunately, these copper deposits, which are now known to be the second largest in the world, may also lead to the complete destruction of the ancient site, since the China Metallurgical Group won a concession in late 2007, for thirty years, for a price of some three billion dollar, to extract the copper ore from the area, which now extends over five square km. Provisions were made to carry out further excavations at the site, but it remains to be seen whether these can satisfactorily be concluded before the actual ore extraction will start.

    The speakers
    Khair Mohammed Khairzada is an Afghan archaeologist who in 2007-2008 studied at Leiden University with a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has since his return to Kabul been mainly involved in the excavations at Mes Aynak. From 2011-2012 he was the acting director of the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, and general director of the Mes Aynak excavations.

    Willem Vogelsang has been working, intermittently, in Afghanistan since 1978, when he worked at the ancient site of Old Kandahar, in the south of the country, and which is also crowned by a Buddhist stupa from the mid first millennium. He will provide a brief introduction to the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan, after which Khairzada will talk about the excavations at Mes Aynak.

    For more information please contact Ms Titia van der Maas, t.van.der.maas@iias.nl.


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