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World's first oil paintings in Afghan caves: expert
Compiled by Tipitaka Network Newsdesk, Sunday, January 27, 2008
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. The findings were announced at an international symposium held at Japan's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties on Tuesday.
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 the institute.
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 Taliban in 2001.
The ceilings and walls of the caves are decorated with full color Buddhist paintings that are said to have been painted between the fifth century and 10th century.
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 institute and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, based in France, analyzed pieces taken from 50 caves and found that paintings in 12 of them were made with oils between the late seventh century and 10th century.
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.
Painters of the Buddhist murals used organic substances -- including natural resin, plant gum, dry oil and animal protein -- as a binder, which even today is an important element in paint.
A binder keeps pigment particles together in a cohesive film and allows the paint to resist decay.
The researchers are trying to restore the murals amid international efforts to salvage what is left of Bamiyan.
The Taliban, ignoring global protests, dynamited the two 1,500-year-old statues, the world's biggest representations of the Buddha, in March 2001, branding them un-Islamic idolatry.
The regime was ousted later that year in a US-led military campaign after the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Although oil was used in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there currently exist no examples of their use in painting. The oil was used for medicine, cosmetics or to coat boats, Taniguchi said.
Taniguchi hopes the advanced techniques used to analyse the murals would be put to use in ruins of other ancient civilisations.
Other early civilisations including those in current-day Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan and India may have used similar techniques as well but their ruins have not been subject to advanced, extensive research, she said.
"In analysing old murals throughout Europe and Central Asia, I look forward to throwing light on the roots of oil paintings," she said.
As it has been thought that paintings on tamamushi-no-zushi, a small shrine belonging to Horyuji temple in Nara Prefecture, and the treasures of Shosoin, a storehouse at Todaiji temple, were likely painted in oil, the findings that the oil-based paintings exist in the Bamiyan ruins, which are on the ancient Silk Road, are drawing researchers' attention over possible connections with ancient Japanese art.
Some documents suggest that oil paintings using litharge, a natural mineral with a red pigment, existed in the Nara period (710-784), and that oils were used as coating material for craft works in ancient Rome and Egypt.
However, the Bamiyan wall paintings are the world's oldest oil paintings confirmed by scientific analysis.
"It was surprising that oil painting techniques were used for Buddhist paintings in Central Asia. It might be possible to know the origin of the technique by analyzing ruins and artifacts in Asian regions, including Persia and India," said Kosaku Maeda, a professor emeritus of Asian history at Wako University.
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