Something universal and worth remembering is that it's wiser, to expect the unexpected. This holds true in many situations in life. If we could predict things, life would be less exiting. Unquestionably, we wouldn't witness breakthroughs especially in science or archeology.

Virgin and Child with Four Angels ca. 1510–15 by
Gerard David who followed the legacy of Jan van Eyck.

Virgin and Child with Four Angels ca. 1510–15 by
Gerard David who followed the legacy of Jan van Eyck.

The update that will follow is worth adding in our textbooks. If you studied art history, you learned that oil painting was firstly introduced in the 15th century in Europe. It's often associated with Jan van Eyck and Early Netherlandish painting.

Prior to the emergence of oil painting techniques, egg tempera or water base paint was the less enduring and less flexible norm. Besides it's hard to compare murals with transportable art on panels or canvas.

An International Team of Scientists Made a Major Discovery

In 2008, a team of international scientists and conservators made a major discovery. They identified and studied samples of drying oils inside caves in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The works of art are Buddhist murals painted in the mid-7th century A.D.

World Historical Context

You might have heard of the Buddhist heritage of the region which spread along the silk road. Not to mention that since twenty years the Talibans have been trying to annihilate the site linked to the spread of Buddhism. In 2001, they destroyed two large standing Buddha figures, thought to date from the 5th century. In the past, other groups such as mongols looted the monasteries close the city and the caves. On another occasion a Mughal emperor had the statues defaced. Obviously this is a hotspot, and scientists are nervous to do some research before something else happens.


Khotan kingdom, ca. 6th century

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Khotan prefecture, Dandan-Uiliq Water-based pigment on mud plaster.

Metropolitan Museum of Arts.

Technical Aspect

Out of the 50 caves, 12 were painted with oil painting technique, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils.

The artists who painted the Buddhas used a wide range of pigments and ingredients, and even included the use of a final varnish layer. On canvas, the varnishing step improves the aesthetic finish of an oil painting and protects the art from environmental damage.

Given the history of the region and, as a matter of fact it's miraculous that they weren't destroyed on top of undergoing natural environment.

The murals show scenes with Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures.

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
A painting fragment from the Foladi cave. This painting of a Buddha figure was identified as an oil painting (© NRICPT).
A painting fragment from the Foladi cave.
This painting of a Buddha figure was identified as an oil painting (© NRICPT).

Scientists have proved, thanks to experiments performed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), that the paintings were made of oil, hundreds of years before the technique was “invented” or experimented with in Europe. Results are published today in the peer-reviewed Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry. J. Anal. At. Spectrom. 23, 820 (2008).

Who's Going to Update Our History Books and Review Discrepancies When New Findings Are Revealed to the World?

It isn't an easy process to "update" our knowledge because it reshapes our world view somewhat.

I came across this story when I was reading an article on the Gandhara Buddha statue on display at the State Museum of Berlin. Owing to a curiosity I have for Berlin museums and I planned to put this statue on my "to do" list. This is how I came across this incredible information: First Oil Painting technique actually used hundreds year before we thought. Why is it significant?

Researchers uncover something new everyday. In today's age we're bombarder with information to read, to listen to, to watch, endlessly. The number of hours everyone has in a day is the same for all. How do we manage to select what's important and relevant?

Whether in commerce, science, or politics — history remembers the artists.

Naval Ravikant

It's a test of flexibility, how humanity as a whole learns and adapts to new truths, changes its mind and worldview. What I find fascinating in this story, that is again shifting a "first" towards the East, is the commonalities between East and West. In both cases, artists of the past were seeking to depict the divine. They depicted beauty, grace, gratitude and upright themes even if we often associate them with religion or history. In Europe through Christian themes, in the East through Buddhist themes.

In the case of the caves, it is likely that we will never find out who painted them, but is it really important? Maybe the most impactful art we will ever see will not be associated with the name of an artist to copy or idealize. The subject is what matters, and here the artists, tried to depict scenes of people meditating together and tried to make it colorful, beautiful, and lasting. They put thought into coming up with a technique, this is effort, it had to develop through trial and error. Eventually, it was worth it.

Ars longa, vita brevis

This can be rendered into English as

Life is short,

and art (craft/skill) long,

opportunity fleeting,

experimentations perilous/treacherous,

and judgment difficult.

Latin translation of an aphorism coming originally from Greek

Art is long, life is short learning one's craft takes so long that a lifetime may not be adequate or works of art may outlive their creators

Mural painting of two Buddhas, Bamiyan, c. 650AD
Source: ESRF, (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility) Grenoble, France.

Principal Publication and Authors Involved in the Discovery:

Scientific Articles

 Due to political reasons research on paintings in Central Asia is scarce. We were fortunate to get the opportunity from UNESCO, as a part of conservation project for the World Heritage site Bamiyan, to study these samples and we hope that future research may provide deeper understanding of the painting techniques along the Silk Road and the Eurasian area

Yoko Taniguchi

With this in mind, I was actually surprised that these findings from 2008 didn't make any fuss in the world. I didn't know about it, maybe we needed twitter? To my knowledge few art publications bothered updating their websites. I frequently read museum websites and they too need to add this additional context. For example this essay titled "Painting in Oil in the Low Countries and Its Spread to Southern Europe" states the old version. To be fair, it was published in 2002.

Personally I will follow Yoko Taniguchi's work more closely, she's working on interesting subjects.

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Oil Paintings In Buddhist Caves Predates European Discovery Of The Technique By Hundreds Of Years