1. The extraordinary cave art in Grotte Chauvet 2.

From cave lion to Hercules

The Grotte Chauvet 2, or Chauvet Pont-D'Arc cave, in the Ardèche in south-west France is a replica of the original Chauvet Cave in which astounding masterpieces of prehistoric art were discovered in 1994. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the original cave is now closed to the public in order to preserve it, but an amazingly accurate replica gives visitors a unique and privileged glimpse of its stunning art, as well as an insight into 36,000-year-old Paleolithic myths and belief systems.

Situated on a limestone cliff above the bed of the Ardèche River, Chauvet Cave is filled with paintings, engravings and drawings of cave lions, mammoths, rhinos, bison, cave bears and horses – the earliest known example of cave paintings. It also contains other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

2. Inside the amazing Chauvet Pont D'Arc building is a replica of Chauvet Cave and exhibition space.

Now the Pont-D'Arc Cave is hosting its first international temporary exhibition: Of Lions and Men: Feline mythology – 400 centuries of fascination. This is an apt subject because half of all the known prehistoric rock art depictions of cave lions are found in the Chauvet Cave itself.

The exhibition explores the symbolism that big cats have taken on through time and across continents. From prehistoric Europe, the ancient Mediterranean world, the Middle East and Asia to South America and Africa. There are over 180 works of art – sculpted and engraved objects, amulets, ceramics, busts and masks – from national and international collections. Also on show are an impressive array of natural history exhibits, such as a frozen 46,000-year-old mummy of a cave lion-cub from the Siberia – exhibited for the first time in France – and other numerous zoological specimens from the Natural History Museum in Paris.

3. Head of Heracles, Roman copy of Greek original from circa 5th century BC, marble, Herculaneum.

Of Lions and Men is divided into sections, showing how the lion played different roles in different civilisations at different times. In Egypt, he or she was thought to be a protector: statues of lions and lionesses were frequently placed at the entrances to temples and, later, to palaces. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the idea of the hero and the lion merged. The ultimate lion-hero is Heracles (Hercules) the 'lion heart'; in him, man's most noble opponent is also a heroic model. Having killed the lion, he appropriates the animal's strength and status by wearing its pelt.

Hellenistic art accentuated this powerful motif, as seen in a marble head (2) from Herculaneum. The lion's head is not just a hood; Hercules' face seems to emerge from the lion's gaping jaws as if to reveal the true face of the hero. In Africa, the lion is seen a symbol of authority and power. For example, the lion mask is one of the major emblems of the Kore initiation society in southwestern Mali.

4. Lion's head, circa 2340 BC, basalt, Abusir, Egypt.

The exhibition weaves together ethnology, art history, archaeology, natural sciences and social science. Works of art, zoological specimens, videos, myths and stories offer different keys to the understanding of this age-old relationship. After 400 centuries of fascination, do big (or small) cats still have a place in our collective consciousness? For the answer, just ask my mother about Puddy.

• Of Lions and Men: Feline mythology – 400 years of fascination is on show at Grotte Chauvet 2 (en.grottechauvet2ardeche.com) until 22 September 2019. The catalogue is published by Gallimard Editions.

Lindsay Fulcher