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Cat symbolism in art

Who doesn’t know cats? They appear to be the best antidepressant — graceful, gentle, the embodiment of comfort — and at the same time — the repository of vices: lustful, lazy, impudent… But, nevertheless, they take their certain place in human culture, having gone a long way from a deity to an ordinary representative of the urban fauna. And although the attitude towards cats has changed from worship to simple human affection, the main thing is that cats always return to the hearth. That is why they have been loved for many millennia.

Goddesses and hunters

The predecessors of the lovely purrers were far from being sweet and friendly. One of the temples of Heliopolis had a sculpture of a cat — a personification of the sun god Ra portrayed as a wild feline. Depending on the time of day, the eyes of the statue narrowed or widened (the priests skillfully used the achievements of the latest technologies of the time), and every hour water flowed from the sacred animal’s mouth. Their stone sculptures followed the pharaohs to the afterlife and guarded them closely … however, their main security mission was to exterminate rodents who skillfully destroyed grain supplies. Due to their natural dexterity, those skillful hunters were elevated to the rank of gods, and therefore, their images had magical powers.

In Ancient Egypt, cats were everywhere: they were carved from stone, painted on dishes and walls of burial chambers, moulded out of clay… On the banks of the Nile, they were considered sacred, and those killing these animals faced death penalty. The whiskered assistants of the supreme deity were mummified and buried in special cemeteries.

A little later, cats got into the Germanic Pantheon and served the goddess Freyja who rode a chariot pulled by two cats. In truth, this was the end of their elevation.
Thanks to the Egyptians, cats came to Europe from Ancient Greece and for a long time were considered exotic, "luxurious" animals, so weasels were kept by households in order to catch mice. It was only in the era of the Roman emperors, when the small predators were used for practical purposes.

In Roman and Greek painting, the images of cats could be found on coins, amphoras, beautiful mosaics, etc. However, they were not the "kings of animals", but only allies in the fight against rodents.

From heaven to hell

In the Middle Ages, when the Inquisition declared war on the chaos of unbelief approaching the world, cats fell out of favor. Thrown down from the throne, they were relegated for several centuries to the basement of human thought, and therefore — art. There was another reason for this: the religious nature of medieval painting caused each object in the picture to bear symbolic and ideological significance, each detail had a canonical meaning. And over the centuries, artists strictly observed the rules established by the church.

In the iconography of Christian art, our characters symbolized both laziness and lust, as well as deception and betrayal. In some medieval images, cats are even present in the scene of Eve’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden. But these are rare cases, since animals almost never appeared in the paintings of the artists of that time, with the exception of references to bestiaries (richly decorated compendium of information concerning certain animals, including mythical ones).

By the way, it was relatively late when cats became a matter of the superstitious fear (due to their marked propensity towards nightlife). It was believed that the devil often disguised as a black cat. That’s why cats were usually depicted perching on the shoulder of their mistresses, who were witches.
Domenico Girlandajo. The last supper

A suspicious attitude towards cats is also characteristic of the early Renaissance. For example, in his Last Supper, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449−1494) painted the cat sitting behind the figure of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ, thereby continuing the medieval tradition of hostility towards an animal, symbolizing betrayal in this story.

Israel van Mekenem. The visit to the spinner

Images of cats also implied lust and in some cases referred to the world’s oldest profession. For example, in The Visit to the Spinner by Israhel van Meckenem (1495−1503), one can see a cat resting on the floor of the room where a young woman works at a spinning wheel, with a man seated nearby. It is believed that this painting depicts love for sale, and the presence of a cat indicates the purpose of the guest’s visit.

Jan van Eyck. The Birth Of John The Baptist

In the painting Birth of John the Baptist by Jan van Eyck the images of cats in the foreground are quite possibly the prophecies of future events: John the Baptist would be beheaded at King Herod’s banquet, visited by these animals.

Hieronymus Bosch. The garden of earthly delights. Left wing

The artists of the Renaissance for a long time did not depart from the canonical symbols and this can be seen in the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450−1516). In the foreground, near the Tree of Knowledge, God introduces Eve to the surprised Adam. As usual with Bosch, no idyll exists without foreshadowing evil, and we see a pit of dark water and a cat with a mouse in its teeth, which in this context symbolizes the devil and cruelty.

Francisco Goya. Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de zúñiga, child

Painting a cat, Francisco Goya wanted to show its' predatory instincts (Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga. Boy, circa 1787).

Nature's masterpiece

However, the situation gradually changed: the shackles of religious prejudice weakened, life became more comfortable, and the mouse-catchers lying on the stove posed no threat, and even vice versa — they often were good company, and it was so pleasant to watch them in spare time!
Leonardo da Vinci. Sketching cats, dragons, and other animals

For the great Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, cats have become the object of scientific research. "The smallest feline is a masterpiece," wrote Leonardo, filling the pages of his album with sketches of these animals washing, playing or hunting mice and birds.

Gradually, cats conquered their place not only in the house, but also in painting, becoming almost a noteworthy character of "home" scenes from artists such as Hans von Kulmbach (1476−1522), Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (1500−1559), Otto van Veen (Otto Venius) (1556−1629), Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715−1783), Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699−1779), and a Dutch painter Judith Jans Leyster (1609−1660), who was a student of Frans Hals.
Usually, cats were painted next to children, and also complemented portraits and still lifes. They were not yet in the center of the composition, but already served as an important semantic detail of the work. In the portraits of young ladies, cats emphasized the femininity and tenderness of their owners, while static still lifes were supplemented with some kind of intrigue and action with the help of these playful creatures.
Clara Peeters. Still life with fish and cat

Often clever purrers were portrayed stealing food. However, it was done with humor and some admiration for the cats' dexterity and sagacity. As, for example, on the canvas of the Flemish painter Clara Peeters (1594−1657), who created several "genre" still lifes portraying charming cheats.

Cats in the house

By the XVII—XVIII centuries, cats had quietly penetrated human life and permanently settled there.
Louis Lenen. Happy family

By the middle of the XVII century, cats had undoubtedly been recognized as part of the family (Louis Le Nain's Happy Family, 1642), and their images sometimes served as a metaphor for motherhood, a cozy home and liberties.

Cardinal Richelieu kept dozens of cats and even left money in his will to make sure they would be taken care of after his death. In the XVIII century, cats triumphantly walked through the salons of noble ladies, who commissioned portraits of their pets to medalists, and their ashes were kept in exquisite urns. Antoine Watteau (1684−1721) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732−1806) depicted them in pastoral scenes and ladies' boudoirs.
In England, cats were already in the pages of novels, poems and in pictures as an indispensable attribute of a happy family life.
George Stubbs. Godolphin

In the middle of the XVIII century, animalism as an independent genre began the conquest of Europe. The famous English portrait painter George Stubbs (1724−1806), on his portrait of The Godolphin Arabian depicted animal friendship: the one between a horse and a cat.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Triptych: Cat, representing the 53 stations of the Tokaido

One of the most famous Japanese cat fans, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798−1861) and his woodcut print Cats Suggested As The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō are also a stark example of that. This is a parody of the famous series of woodcut prints The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The whiskered cuties in this densely filled picture have punny names corresponding to the stations.

Catwomen, day and night

In the XIX century, artists no longer adhered to traditional symbolism
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and rather solved artistic tasks, using animals as an additional means to express emotions, emphasize the mood or aspects of personality of the characters depicted.
Edouard Manet. Olympia

However, the cats' dark past was not forgotten and their vicious nature was referred to by Édouard Manet (1832−1883) in his painting Olympia (1863). Painting a nude who had a black kitten by her feet, the artist conveyed the "catwoman" metaphor, inspired by the work of his friend Charles Baudelaire, who at that time was experiencing a difficult affair with a deceptive lady. The hissing kitten is a classic attribute in the images of the witches, being a sign of bad feelings and changeable female nature.

But usually, artists saw tenderness, peace and fireside comfort in charming purrs.
The cat sleeping in broad daylight in Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is a bliss. Clear "cat paw prints" can be found on Renoir’s canvases: his Woman with a Cat as if personifies everything gentle and fluffy in the cat (and not only!) nature.
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by Théophile Steinlen (1896), the French graphic artist, the author of the album of picture stories entitled Cats, is a symbol of nightlife.

Entertaining felinology

In the XX century, cats were no longer just participants in the genre scenes — their images became a safe marketing move, but the artist’s creative imagination would often endow them with human features and vice versa. For example, in Marc Chagall’s (1887−1985) famous painting Paris through the Window (1913), a red cat, sitting on the windowsill, has a human head. In his painting Cat Catching a Bird (1939), Pablo Picasso conveyed the animal’s predatory nature: extended claws and bare fangs, gripping a bird. It was the personification of the fascist threat emerging at the time.
Marc Chagall. Paris through the window
1913, 135.8×141.4 cm
Pablo Picasso. Cat devouring a bird
1939, 96.5×128.9 cm
Speaking of artists who loved cats, it is worth mentioning Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898- 1972), who is famous for his wood and metal engravings. Creating metamorphosis from birds, lizards, snakes and other animals, he did not forget about cats. The "commercially successful" subject was not ignored by Andy Warhol, who, by the way, was really fond of cats.
Nowadays, the kingdom of cats on the canvases of painters can be easily called a "Catmania": no matter how many skillful photos there are, painted cats still remain a popular and symbolic art object.