Have you ever been told in a history class to take everything with a grain of salt because we look at history through a modern lens? Well, that rule doesn’t seem to apply to medieval paintings of animals. Through the modern lens, it’s as though someone who has never seen a cat in their entire life was given a verbal description of the animal and told to paint it.
To artists during the medieval era, animals were seen as a reflection of society, and cats were a prime example of deviant behavior. Unlike dogs, these feudal feline friends could not be trained in loyalty—they simply came and went depending on who fed them. So, the rather odd appearance of the cats could be because they wanted their image to depict their poor societal behavior.
Much of the animosity toward cats revolved around the dark forces. Their ability to see in the dark worried people during that time, as this kind of “night vision” was chalked up to animals dismissing Christ’s light and choosing to walk amongst the darkness of the devil. This is also where we get the black cat superstitions, dating back to the 12th century. It’s also why humans were given blank stares and animals had more emotional facial expressions—during this time, a person was considered a good Christian if they kept their emotions at bay, unlike the unruly felines who did as they pleased.
For example, consider this image of a cat from Scheibler Armorial, made in Germany around 1450-1480. In this work, the cat holds a crown on its head, its derpy face looking rather pleased with itself in its new position of power. The face, however deformed, has mischief written all over it. What is the cat ruler of? I do not know, but I’d attend its coronation.
The deterrence toward cats and their mischievous behavior did not stop at art. There was a moment on record in 1420 when a monk wrote in outrage about a cat peeing on his manuscripts:
“Beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come,” the monk wrote. “Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night.”
Humans received the same kind of moral reflection as animals in medieval-era art. Artists during this time were not interested in realism. They wanted to capture the holiness of each person through their blank stares that symbolized controlled, suppressed emotions and thus adherence to the Christian faith. However, according to CBC, these artists disliked receiving these projects because they ran the risk of accidentally portraying the son of God as a weak and innocent figure. How did they combat that? With a six-pack and a full head of hair, thus giving way to Homunculus Jesus.
In order to capture the wisdom and piety of Jesus, medieval painters would add more grown features to baby Jesus to draw distinctions between normal human life and Jesus’s life. To do this, they kept his body proportionate to an infant but added more adult features, such as a receding hairline, physique, and sometimes even facial hair. They also wanted to illuminate his strength as a part of his identity that began at birth, which is likely where the paintings of baby Jesus with an unironic six-pack and triceps come from. The medieval focus on prioritizing morality in visual works gave way to this kind of interpretation, much like why medieval cats are not painted under a lens of realism.
Those derpy faces are intended to symbolize the deviance of a domestic cat’s behavior. Their sometimes deformed faces and beady eyes were used to draw distinctions between heresy and religious faith and strengthen arguments that cats were a portrayal of dark, devilish magic. The works were not meant to be realistic but to reflect characteristics of society, leading to a pipeline of moralization, whether it be through the disfigurement of feline faces or baby Jesus’s rock-hard abs.
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