The sacred nature of support

The strength of an image mostly depends  on the sacred nature of the support that hosts it. Archaic cultures invest the rock with a supernatural value. This is recognised by a presumed eternity value and its function as mediator between the sky and the Earth. Already J. David Lewis Williams, in a study of the Kalahari Bushmen (Through the Veil: paintings of St. Rock and the Face of Rock, South Afr. Arch. Bull. 45:5-16, 1990) writes, that we should not consider the surface of the rock as a neutral space ( “Silent support”) that is defined by its form. Lewis Williams learned from the last Bushmen artists how the surface of the rock is treated as a veil, a thin film separating the human world from the one below, home to the spirits of the Earth.

Vite (Paspardo, Valcamonica). Two warriors with a sword and a ritual shield who perform an armed dance. In the middle, the body of an anthropomorphic  figure coming out of the ground. Period IV/3, V sec. B.C. (from Angelo Fossati, L’Età del Ferro nelle incisioni rupestri della Valcamonica, 1991 .

Lewis Williams  states that in order to understand the rock art performance by the San population one has to consider that the bushman artist translates the knowledge held by the community into the images engraved on the rock with full consciousness that the support was a threshold separating the two worlds. It’s not possible to separate this idea from the act that effectively produces the images. Some of the animal figures or monsters are represented between the upper and the lower reality, with some visible parts of the body, as they are this side of the veil, and others not represented at all because these seem to be inside the rock. This way of thinking belongs to the archaic mentality in general, and we can still find it in the popular tradition of the Alpine communities. In Valcamonica (Brescia, Lombardy) the story of the “lady with the goat feet”, was told to frighten hunters and visitors of the forest. According to the story, this woman would have lived inside the rock and she would suddenly come out to eat those who were walking by. To return into the rock, the lady would put her foot over a circular incision that would have opened the passage.

Anodos scene, the ascent of a spirit from the underworld; the spirit rises when he hears the Sileno’s foot hitting the ground. Early Attic Ceramic with black figures, V sec. b.C. (Bérard, C. Anodoi: Essai sur l’imagerie des passages chthoniens, Inst. Suisse de Rome, 1974.

The element which is represented between the two warriors engaged in an armed dance scene engraved on the rock 15 from Vite (Paspardo, 5th century b.C.), is interpreted as the spirit of the dead attending a stage of his funeral games. Similar representation are also visible on some Greek ceramic vases that Claude Berard calls  “Anodos”. By hitting the ground with his foot the Silenus attract the spirit from the underworld through a gate called “Chthonic passage “. In the archaic mind-set, the regions of the cosmos are not separate entities, but the expression of a single manifestation. The boundaries between the cosmic elements,  the sky, the ground and the underworld, were periodically crossed by streams of energy and superhuman entities. This could have had either a positive or a negative influence on the life of the humans. Just these specific points, where the sacred manifests itself (Ierophany), were chosen as seats for the ceremonies and where the images were made.

stele felsinea 130
Stele Felsinea Nr. 130 (V sec. bc). A warrior is facing a monster from the underworld with  chest,  head and  arms of a human, legs and tail of a snake. The creature raises from the ground (anodos) (da Morigi Govi, C., Vitali, D., Il Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna,  1982).

The engraved rocks of Valcamonica are one of these sacred spaces. In the rock engravings there are some detectable cosmological rules that were well known to the rock artist who produced the images. The so-called busts of anthropomorph, for example, which we often find in association with the armed dance, are human figures to which only the upper part of the body has been engraved. Like the animals described by Lewis Williams, that are represented half inside and half outside of the rock, these “busts” are framed in the act of passing through the veil, which is the threshold between the worlds. The anthropomorphic figure, caught at the precise moment in which the crossing occurs, is visible only in its upper part, but it is only a matter of time, since in the next moment of ascent (anodos) the entire figure would be visible, while in the case of its descent (cathodos) the same would have disappeared because already inside the rock.


Autore: Gaudenzio Ragazzi

(English). My name is Gaudenzio Ragazzi, a long time ago I graduated in Philosophy with a master in History of Theater. To realize my thesis on the "origins of dance", a theme that still today boasts only two or three specialized researchers in the world, I became a scholar of Prehistoric Iconography. In the last thirty years I have not been able to escape the responsibilities of life. So, after the death of my father, I led the family artisan company that produces tailored shirts. A few years ago I decided that it was time to resume my studies and complete the research I had started as a young man (that nobody else had yet completed). Good luck Gaudenzio! Mi chiamo Gaudenzio Ragazzi, molto tempo fa ho conseguito la laurea in Filosofia con specializzazione in Storia del Teatro. Sono diventato uno studioso di Iconografia Preistorica per realizzare la mia tesi di laurea sulle "origini della danza", argomento che ancora oggi vanta nel mondo solo due o tre studiosi di una certa levatura. Negli ultimi trent'anni non ho potuto sottrarmi alle responsabilità della vita. Così, dopo la morte di mio padre, ho guidato l'azienda artigiana di famiglia che produce camicie su misura. Alcuni anni fa ho deciso che era arrivato il momento di riprendere i miei studi e di fare da vecchio quello che non ho potuto fare da giovane (e che nessun altro nel frattempo aveva completato). Buon lavoro Gaudenzio !


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