Oldest oil paintings found in Asia

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Times Staff Writer

The technique of painting in oils was developed in Asia as long as 800 years before it appeared in Europe, according to a new analysis of murals found inside caves at Bamian in Afghanistan.

Bamian became notorious when the Taliban blew up two colossal statues of Buddha there in 2001. The Taliban -- whose strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, forbids representational art -- also damaged ancient murals in many caves in the region.

An international team of scientists and art historians attempting to restore murals has taken samples from the paintings to identify pigments for duplication.


The researchers reported Tuesday in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectroscopy that 12 out of 50 caves decorated between the mid-7th century and the 10th century were painted with oil-based paints.

“This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world,” said Yoko Taniguchi, a historian at Tokyo’s National Research Institute for Cultural Properties and one of the authors of the report.

Most history and art texts state that oil painting had its roots in Europe in the 15th century, when artists began using drying oils, such as linseed oil, as a base for paints. The oils serve as a carrier for the pigment and, when they dry, bind the pigment to the canvas or other medium.

Before the development of oil paints, artists relied primarily on tempera, made from egg yolks, as the binding agent.

The binders and pigments used in the Bamian murals were identified using gas chromatographs at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles and a variety of X-ray technologies at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.

The synchrotron technology enabled researchers to study each layer in the paintings, identifying pigments and binders.


The oil-based paints most likely incorporated walnut and poppy-seed drying oils, the researchers said.

The paintings were probably the work of itinerant artists who traveled on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that stretched from China to the West, Taniguchi said.

Unfortunately, she added, “due to political reasons, research on paintings in Central Asia is scarce.”