Europeans are often a little too eager to take credit for innovation. Copernicus may have formalized the heliocentric model of the solar system in the early 1500s, for example, but the Pole only did so with the help of vast tables of astronomical measurements taken 200 years earlier in Iran. Even the scientific method itself, often thought to have emerged from Galileo’s experiments in Italy around the same time, has its roots with Arab scientists of the 11th century.

Similar lapses of history occur in the art world. Many still think of oil painting as a European invention of the early Renaissance, perfected by the 15th century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, who supposedly stumbled across the medium while experimenting with glazes. But they too are mistaken.

In Afghanistan we have a non-European example of oil painting, which supports a far more internationalist story of art Jenny Graham, University of Plymouth

“A whole mythology sprang up around van Eyck’s so-called invention of oil painting,” explains Jenny Graham, an art historian from the University of Plymouth, UK, and author of the recent book Inventing Van Eyck. “But it has long been recognised that oil painting was documented in the 12th century or even earlier and may have originated outside Europe.”

Art historians have always lacked real examples to bear out this documentary evidence. Now, however, scientists performing experiments at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) on samples of murals taken from Afghanistan say they have uncovered what could be the earliest known examples of oil paintings.

Seventh century art

The Afghan murals were discovered back in 2001 after Taliban fighters demolished two sandstone Buddha statues, each around 15 storeys tall, in the highland town of Bamyan. Behind the rubble was the entrance to a network of some 50 caves where the murals had been painted. They were dated to the mid-7th century, more than seven centuries before the Renaissance.

Yoko Taniguchi of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo first looked at the paintings three years ago, and noticed what appeared to be a shrunken film on the surface. “I thought that it could be oil, but since it was not a major material [used in the Afghan region], I did not really consider it,” she says. Taniguchi decided to take some small samples to Grenoble, France, where she could work with Marine Cotte and colleagues at the ESRF.

The ESRF provides synchrotron light with a high brightness and wavelengths from infrared to X-rays, which means Cotte’s team were able to use three different imaging techniques to study the samples. Micro X-ray fluorescence and micro X-ray diffraction could penetrate deep into the samples to discern the composition of the pigments. But it was using micro Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, which provides spectra for separate layers in the samples, that the researchers could discover the signatures of carbon–hydrogen and carbon–oxygen bonds. These bonds indicated that the pigments must have been bound with oil (J. Anal. At. Spectrom. doi: 10.1039/b801358f).

“We were very fortunate that analytical techniques using synchrotron radiation made it possible to analyse layer-by-layer at the micro level,” says Taniguchi. “If we could analyse samples from other areas — such as west-Asian and Mediterranean regions — we may find similar examples.”

We were very fortunate that analytical techniques using synchrotron radiation made it possible to analyse layer-by-layer at the micro level Yoko Taniguchi, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo

Binding pigments

Aside from supporting the idea that oil painting may have been known to non-Western cultures before it was practiced in Europe, it could shift our understanding of when oils were first used to bind pigments, rather than to simply glaze a piece made with other materials. The medical writer Aetius described the use of drying oils as a varnish in connection with artists in the 6th century, but it was not until the 12th century, with the writings of the German monk Theophilus, that more concrete references were made to the mixing of oil with pigment to make paint.

“The significance of this find for art historians,” explains Graham, “rests on the distinction between glazing with oil as described by Aetius, and what we seem to have here, genuine oil painting, where the pigment itself is mixed with an oily binder, a practice usually dated to around the 12th century. So in Afghanistan, we not only have real rather than documentary evidence of one of the earliest instances of oil painting, we have a non-European example which supports a far more internationalist story of art.”