Cats in Art - Middle Ages


Most Western artists of the Middle Ages produced religious paintings. Each object in a painting symbolized a particular idea or concept in Christian doctrine. In the iconography of Christian art, the cat symbolized both laziness and lust. The Middle Ages were dark centuries for the cat in the Christian world, where it was widely believed that the devil took the form of a black cat. Persecution, torture and death became the likely fate of humans who showed attention or affection to any cat.
Incense Burner, 11th or 12th century, Seljuk

In the Islamic world, the cat was respected and protected because cats were loved by the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. There is a story that Mohammed's cat Muezza once fell asleep on the sleeve of his master's robe --instead of disturbing his beloved cat when he had to leave, Mohammed cut off the sleeve of his robe.

This bronze incense burner represents a cat with its mouth half open and ears pricked. The back, neck and chest are all perforated to allow incense to escape. On the cat's chest is an inscription in the Kufic script which says: "Valor, power, and glory."

[c. 11th or 12th century, bronze incense burner, Islamic, Seljuk]

Venetian School, c. 1480, Birth of The Virgin, painting

This painting by an artist of the Venetian School is entitled Birth of the Virgin and depicts activity in the room immediately following Mary's birth. As St. Anne is offered some food, the household cat looks on --apparently more interested in treats than in the new arrival.

[c. 1480, Venetian School, Birth of the Virgin, painting]

In 1348, the Black Death or bubonic plague swept across Europe in successive epidemics with an overwhelming loss of life. In England, more than half the people died; in some parts of France, only one-tenth of the population survived. Cats believe that, by bringing the rodent population under control, we heroically saved the humans from complete extinction. Europeans of the Middle Ages, however, did not appear to make the connection or they would have been much nicer to us.

This early European woodcut shows a Venetian doctor visiting a plague patient. The household cat appears to sit guard in the room, keeping those nasty rodents away.

[1493/94, Ketham, woodcut from the book "Venice" ]

Ketham, Physician Visiting Plague Patient, 1493/4, woodcut
Shen Chou, 1494, Cat Cats were honored and protected in Asia because the humans there recognized the value of our services in protecting food crops and the silk worm industry from destruction by rodents. This cat appeared in a 1494 album of studies by the Chinese painter Shên Chou, one of the first great masters of the Ming Dynasty.

Although created in the same year as the woodcut above, the painting seems modern in the way it allows us a glimpse of the cat's personality.

[1494, Shên Chou, Cat (detail), painting]

Durer, 1504, Adam and Eve (detail), engraving

In this detail from Albrecht Dürer's engraving of Adam and Eve, we find a cat among other animals underfoot in the Garden of Eden.

[1504, Dürer, Adam and Eve (detail), engraving]


This detail from a 16th century Mogul miniature gives a Moslem interpretation of Noah and the Flood. Notice how the cat calmly sits aloof from the rest of the passengers on the ark and seems unconcerned about the activity around her.

[16th century, Noah and the Flood (detail), Mogul, miniature]

Mogul miniature, Noah, 16th century

Vermeyen, c. 1550, The Holy Family by the Fire, painting This painting by Dutch artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen shows the Holy Family resting by a fire after returning from Egypt. As most cats will do, this one has found the very best place to relax --snuggled up against Mary's feet on a pile of soft fabric, close to the warm fire.

[c. 1550, Vermeyen, The Holy Family By The Fire, painting]