Lines and Colors art blog

News Flash: Oil painting invented in Asia, not Europe

Oil painting invented in Asia, not Europe
Yes, I know that Europe and Asia are actually one land mass, but the Earth’s supercontinent is so vast and diverse that it still makes sense to think of it as two separate continents, particularly culturally. I do think of the “mid-East” or “near-East” as being part of Asia, though (which, interestingly, makes Christianity an “Eastern” religion, not a Western one, but I digress).

A recent scientific discovery, sadly based on a cultural atrocity, has brought to light new evidence that places the development of oil painting in Asia, and several centuries earlier than the previously assumed development in Europe in the 15th Century.

In 2001 the Taliban thought it was in the interest of their God to destroy two huge statues of the Buddha (somebody else’s God, and so, unworthy of existence), in a region of Afghanistan north of Kabul. The statues were up to 180 ft (55 meters) in height. Along with cave murals in the area, that have also been the target of Taliban attacks, they date back to hundreds of years before the European Renaissance.

This kind of violent intolerance fits in with the mindless, hind-brain driven actions common to religious fanatics everywhere, but developed to a particularly extreme degree by the contemptible thugs of the Taliban, members of which have set out on a campaign to destroy treasured artifacts of other cultures that don’t fit into their pin-headed view of what’s “correct”.

The upside was that interest in the sites was sparked among rational human beings, and archeological and scientific investigation was focused, in particular, on the Buddhist cave murals.

An X-ray identification technique, carried out at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, was able to determine that about a dozen of the 50 or so caves were painted in pigments suspended in drying oil, possibly walnut oil or poppy seed oil, mediums still in use today.

The results of this investigation were just published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry on Tuesday, though they were presented at a scientific conference in Japan in January.

Although these oils had been in use previously in Rome and Egypt, they were used for medical and cosmetic applications, not art.

The cave oil paintings, depicting Buddhas with settings of palm leaves and mythical animals, date back to the middle of the 7th century, making them by far the oldest established examples of oil painting known.

The use of oil painting in Europe most likely was developed independently, but like the “discovery” some time ago that paper, ink and even movable type, existed in China well before their use in Europe, cultural prejudices have to be readjusted as the past continues to change.

As disconcerting as this can be, it reinforces one of the best things about rationality and scientific method; at its best it can break down cultural prejudice with the clear light of scientifically tested fact, in sharp contrast to the willful, self-inflicted blindness of fanaticism.

Religion is better than science at inspiring art (though science and technology are an integral element in the creation of artworks), but rationality is a better protector of art once it exists.

Let’s hope humanity can maintain a balance.


15 responses to “News Flash: Oil painting invented in Asia, not Europe”

  1. I am not sure I agree that religion is better than science at inspiring art; my own work is inspired directly from the biological sciences.

    I do agree that it has been better in the past at inspiring art, however. Otherwise, I agree with all of your statements about rationality and science. Thank you for a well-written article, not awash in the cultural relativism found in so many places in the arts.

    The origin of oil painting has become even more fascinating this month.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Flying Trilobite.

    I have friends and acqauaintences who are paneontological artists, and I’ve done a number of posts on that subject and other aspects of scientific, botanical and medical illustration. I’ve even done a bit of scientific illustration myself for paleontological geological and biological subjects, so I’m definitely appreciative of that aspect of artistic inspiration.

    But you’re right in that I’m looking to the past in making that statement. I base my assessment on the magnitude and intensity (to couch it in scientific terms, even though it’s a value judgement) of religious art throughout history.

  3. Religion-inspired art certainly has been intense, at that.

    I found Mary Anne Staniszewski’s book, Believing is Seeing: creating the culture of art an interesting book. She puts forth in very visual terms that art as we think of the term did not really exist until about the late eighteenth century; that before that period artistic endeavours were part of religious worship and a sort of craftsmanship primarily with other purposes in mind than being viewed as an art object.

    Staniszewski’s point of view is valid in one way, but it’s hard to get out from behind our cultural lens. Michaelangelo’s Pieta is an inspiring example of motherhood, with or without religious belief in its specific story.

    I remember in university art history classes, a few of the students attacking a lot of paintings due to the presence of the ‘male gaze’ and nude women, and then dismissing the rest of the meaning of say, Bottecelli’s Venus in it’s entirety.

    For myself as a Bright or atheist, I’m never tempted to throw out the narrative, mood or beauty with the religious bathwater. The religious art of the past is a tribute to the striving feelings of our predecessors, which makes the tragedy at Bamiyan al the more terrible.

    (Sorry for the long response!)

  4. For some reason I am not surprised.

    A while ago, when studying comparative aesthetics, I came a cross a theory, that renaissance (in terms of ideas expressed) actualy started in china and shockwaved from there to the west (first India, then Near East, then Europe) and east (Japan) in a decade or two.
    This oil painting technique discovery seems to support it.

  5. Just be be clear about what this represents to me: since we’re talking buried artifacts, it’s not for certain that “oil painting was invented in Asia,” but that this is the earliest to be uncovered so far. There may well be some buried oil painting in Egypt that’s older, or elsewhere, for all we know. It wasn’t as if oil wasn’t available to other cultures. Just because we haven’t found Greek paintings in oil doesn’t mean they may not exist. The same thing goes for paper, since the “tapa” of papyrus was used in Egypt from 3000BC, if not earlier. And does it really matter who thought up oil as a medium first? The use of egg or milk as a binder is even older. Sorry, I don’t want to trounce all over your article. So, kudos to the Chinese for all their many inventions. Fortunately for us other people were able to take it out of their hands and share it.

  6. and what a great criss-cross between all those extremely ancient cave paintings people used to do, and the oil paintings we still do! art is such a fundamental part of humanity.

  7. It would have been better if you mentioned the city or the province where these great discoveries were. Maybe its not a matter to others but it is to Hazaras (the native and aborigional nation of Afghanistan). The painting were found in the caves of bamyan province during the Koshani/Kouchani Empire.

  8. The use of oil painting in Europe most likely was developed independently, but like the “discovery” some time ago that paper, ink and even movable type, existed in China well before their use in Europe, cultural prejudices have to be readjusted as the past continues to change.=====I agree with that.

  9. Thanks for updating us. Your article is genuinely good, and informative.

  10. your article is very usefully for me!

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  12. Good, i like this article, i also think oil painting is invented in Asia, not Europe, if you seek the history.

  13. Thanks for sharing this! Interesting!