On the inability of medieval artists to paint cats

One of our readers, Laurie Sidoni, has started her own website, A Classicist Writes, covering a mix of topics that looks propitious:

…on myriad themes, including – but, not limited to – ancient Rome to cats (especially THEO!) to “The Walking Dead” to Amsterdam to atheism to hockey to “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “Les Mis” and almost ALWAYS quotes Emerson!

So have a look at her site. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you to her most recent post, “. . . on cats what ain’t cats“, which shows something I’ve long recognized: medieval artists simply couldn’t paint cats accurately.  Laurie shows lots of grotesque attempts to depict felids (giving her funny responses), and I’ll show but two:

One thing I noticed in Laurie’s collection is that the malformed cats, like the two above, often have humanlike faces. Did these artists even look at cats, or did they just slap a human face on a catlike shape? Who knows? Perhaps readers have their own theories that are theirs.

But when Laurie sent me the first such picture, it reminded me of this completely screwed-up attempt by a Spanish woman “artist” to restore a damaged fresco, resulting in what the New York Times called “probably the worst art restoration project of all time.”

(From NYT): The three versions of the “ecce homo” fresco of Jesus. From left, the original version by Elías García Martínez, a 19th-century painter; a deteriorated version of the fresco; the restored version by Cecilia Giménez. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images



  1. Posted April 17, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jerry 👍🏼

  2. Posted April 17, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    love this.

  3. Ann German
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    PCCE – perhaps you missed it, but April’s Fools’ Day was several weeks ago. That “restored” fresco looks like FAKE NEWS.

    • Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Would you like to bet $20 on that? I say it’s real. In fact, I KNOW it’s real.

      Read the NYT article.

      • BJ
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        I still laugh out loud every time I see it. It’s awful in such a hilarious way. How could anyone even try to submit that work?

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 18, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          How could anyone “managing” an irreplaceable piece of art (see below) justify not having the “restorer” submit several appropriate-media “first try” efforts at the retouching, with timings, to justify their bill estimates.

          BELOW :yet another jeebus-pic is very replaceable. But I accept that the whole thing in its context is irreplaceable. If I had to source stone to repair a wall/window there, I’d be very careful (read: time consuming) to get the best match, regardless of its bullshit religious context.

    • Posted April 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I’ll bet you too, Ann….

    • Posted April 17, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      I’m still waiting. . .

  4. LB
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m a painting conservator. It’s very possible the strange appearance of many of these kitties in these paintings is due to damage caused by poor restoration and repainting done multiple times over the centuries.

    Also, I was told in my medieval art history class in undergraduate school that medieval artists were not particularly interested in depicting this world–they were more concerned about the next and therefore rendering objects accurately in this world wasn’t necessary. Just a thought.

    BTW–that “restoration” of the fresco “Ecco Homo” was unfortunately all too real. Believe it or not, I see horrible restorations like that–or worse–nearly every day.

    • Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Do the artists who restore paintings sometimes decide to make it their own? I can’t imagine that anything else is going on in the above example. I have no artistic ability but I can see that it doesn’t even resemble the original. Surely Giminez could also see that.

      • LB
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Yes, unfortunately. We just recently conserved a painting that was proudly signed on the back by the restorer as having been “Repainted” in 1853. It *had* originally been an 18th century–probably 1770’s– colonial portrait by John Durand.

        The restorer (our research indicated he was normally employed as a ship painter) had scraped the original paint down to the canvas and then repainted everything. I guess that’s how he treated the ships he painted. The canvas was clearly 18th century but there was nothing left of the original paint layer. 😦

        He was not a trained oil painter and while the results were not quite as bad as “Ecco Homo”, that’s not saying a lot. That kind of thing happens much more than I like to think. I’ve been working in conservation for 32 years and could tell you some major horror stories, but I don’t think we have the room. 😉

        • David Coxill
          Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          If the painting is too big to fit through the door ,cut a bit off the bottom .
          Private Schultz BBC 1970s

          • David Coxill
            Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            Just checked on the interweb ,it was 1981.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              The original was probably carved in stone on the underside of an interior block of the “Bent” Pyramid, before it acquired it’s bend.

          • LB
            Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

            LOL! Believe it or not, we’ve actually seen that kind of thing before! We’ve been asked to do things like that, too. Of course we refused. 🙂

      • LB
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Concerning “Ecco Homo”, the painting was flaking badly and the very elderly “restorer” apparently decided on her own without authorization to repaint it with oil paints. She claimed she had permission, but who knows. But she clearly felt that she did nothing wrong and thought she’d improved the painting by covering it with oil paint. She didn’t understand that frescos are not oil paintings but pigment applied with water onto the wet plaster wall and is literally a part of the wall.

        People without any training in conservation have wreaked horrible, unspeakable damage to many irreplaceable pieces of art by not understanding what they’re doing. I don’t think most of them do it with malice, but it still doesn’t keep me from wishing there was a special hell that I could send them to for destroying a work of art.

        • BJ
          Posted April 17, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          I don’t understand how this happens. Are there not enough restoration experts out there? Is that how you end up hiring people who paint ships for a living to restore an 18th-century work, or someone who doesn’t know the difference between a fresco and an oil painting to restore Ecco Homo? How do these things even happen?

          • LB
            Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

            In general, Europe has a long tradition of restoration where the masters passed their secret techniques along to their apprentices. Their techniques were not anything we would use today–they often repainted entire paintings in oils or used hide glue to line paintings.

            However, over here in the Colonies in the late 18th, 19th and into the 20th centuries, there wasn’t that kind of tradition. It was difficult to find anyone who knew anything about restoration, especially here in the south. A lot of what we see in my studio are restorations done by a local artist or frame shop. They would repaint and repair as best they could and tried to figure it out as they went along. I’ve seen paintings where tears were stitched together with needle and thread or where a damage was repaired with band-aids and make-up! (or duct-tape, Elmer’s glue, masking tape, bondo, plaster, etc.)

            Art conservation (as opposed to restoration) as we know it in the US is relatively new. There are three schools you can go to in the US for a MA or MS in art conservation and each school only takes 10 students a year. There is still only one school where you can get a PhD. It’s very competitive. There’s a lot of science and chemistry involved as well as art and art history. In general, there aren’t that many trained conservators and it’s hard to get a job in a museum or run a private practice these days.

            Modern conservators carefully document the object to be treated in writing and in photos before, during and after treatment. A modern conservator will use materials that are easily reversible and he/she will never purposefully do something to damage the artwork. We provide the clients with the photographic and written documentation to let them know exactly what materials we used. Most “restorers” don’t do that. If you have an object you want conserved, ask for samples of their reports and see if they’re members of the AIC. (American Institute for Conservation) Overall, it can be a very expensive process.

            Many of the restorers who operated in my city in the 19th and 20th century were artists that were imported from Europe or very charismatic frame shop owners. From what I can tell after talking with some of their former clients or reading newspaper articles about them, they all seemed to be very charming con men. Their clients were uneducated and these people convinced them that the way the painting looked after it was restored was the way it was *supposed* to look. And they accepted it.

            Even now, there’s a restorer in a nearby city who likes to paint blue bows on portraits of pretty women he restores and convinces most of his clients that he “uncovered”them.

            Sorry for the novel–rant ended now. 🙂

            • BJ
              Posted April 17, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

              Please, don’t apologize! That was a very interesting post, and I was glad to read it. Thanks very much for your response 🙂

              • LB
                Posted April 17, 2017 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                You are most welcome. 🙂 Thank you for your excellent questions. Most people have no clue what is involved in art conservation and it’s part of the AIC code of ethics to educate folks. I enjoy giving new clients tours of our studio so they can get a better understanding of what we do and what they can expect. Restorers are notorious for keeping their techniques and materials secret. Conservators are strongly urged to share information and educate the public. 🙂

            • Posted April 17, 2017 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for the informative replies!

            • Posted April 18, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

              I know it’s technically a violation of “Da Roolz” to promote your own efforts on our esteemed host’s website, but I’ll bet at least a few of us are now quite interested to know more about you and your business. Some of us might even be thinking we might have a little project for you to undertake.

              • LB
                Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

                Hi, Peter N! Thank you for your kind words. As much as I’d love to toot my own horn, it’s best to obey the rules. 🙂 If you or anyone else is interested in obtaining conservation services for your artwork, please go to the AIC website: http://www.conservation-us.org/ They have a referral service–just click on “Find a Conservator” at the upper left of their page, enter your zip code and type of conservator you are looking for(paintings, paper, objects, architectural, archeological, etc.) and they will provide you with contact information for a qualified conservator closest to your home.

                The people that they refer are all Professional Associates or Fellows of AIC, which means their education and experience have been vetted and confirmed by the organization. A PA or Fellow has to also agree–in writing–to abide by the AIC Code of Ethics. It’s a big deal since there is no licensing of the conservation field yet.

                There is a lot of excellent general information about the field of conservation on the site, as well as information on how to become a conservator. It’s a great resource for people and museums who need conservation services. 🙂

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

              Sorry for the novel–rant ended now.
              BJ : Please, don’t apologize!

              That is a high-quality post, and if PCC (E) did a ‘post of the {time period}’ award, I’d nominate the post for the award.

              • LB
                Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Thank you! 🙂

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          covering it with oil paint. She didn’t understand that frescos are not oil paintings but pigment applied with water onto the wet plaster wall and is literally a part of the wall.

          “gloss onto emulsion will go; emulsion onto gloss won’t”
          I was taught that by Dad before I learned a thing about hydrophilic or hydrophobic substances. That in itself speaks of profound ignorance, as opposed to malice.
          If I were to maliciously “restore” a fresco (not that I would, exen with my detestation of religion), I’d probably start with a “gentle” wash with [brand name] “biological” washing powder. Then leave it unattended for several days.
          That’s 30 seconds thought. Give me a day and I could come up with something far more destructive. Without an MOAB in sight.

          • LB
            Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            gravelinspector-Aidan: Your father is completely correct. I was taught “oil over acrylic is fine, but not acrylic over oil”. And I agree–much of the damage caused to paintings that we see in my studio is due to ignorance and not malice.

            It truly doesn’t take much to damage a fresco or any kind of painting, unfortunately. I’m sometimes amazed that there are still so many around, considering what’s been done to them in the past! I have to say I’m very glad they’re still here for us to enjoy and I do my best to see that they stay here for another generation or more, if possible.

            Best wishes! 🙂

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted April 19, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

              Dad was a polymer chemist until about 37 seconds after his retirement. I was highly confident that he knew what he was talking about when he passed on that nugget he got from his father.

    • frednotfaith2
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Is that horrid “restoration” evidence of de-evolution? Our So-Called President, his administration, and most of the members of the party dominating our current Congress are further unfortunate evidence.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Is that horrid “restoration” evidence of de-evolution

        No, it’s evidence of excessive confidence.
        IMExperience, as a person’s actual level of knowledge and experience increases, their level of confidence goes down while their competence goes up.

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Your last sentence is sad; I hoped that such things are rare.

    • dallos
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      One of the worst restorations

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Medieval artists were also bad at lions although lions had a much much higher reputation among medieval Christians. The association of cats with witchcraft and revelry is discussed here though it is noted that many nuns kept cats. http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/02/why-cats-were-hated-in-medieval-europe/
    The article also notes that
    “One European pilgrim who traveled to the Middle East even noted that among the differences between Muslims and Christians was that “They like cats, while we like dogs.”

  6. rickflick
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    The Greeks were much better at cats:



    Actually, they were often very accurate, as were the ancient Egyptians.

    • BJ
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      I would expect the Egyptians to be extremely accurate. Nobody wants to disrespect a god with a poor depiction.

      If I believed in a god, maybe it would be a cat-god…..hmmm….

  7. Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I spent a lot of time in 80’s in the National Gallery. They didn’t know how to paint children either. They looked like small adults.

  8. KD33
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    The same applies to babies. Pre-Davinci babies look for the most part like old men (and I’d say the kitty pix in the post also look like old men!) My 8 year old daughter had a great time taking photos of the ca 1200-1400 era babies at the Louvre. It made for a hilarious (or disturbing) collage.

  9. Posted April 17, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    This is actually a common problem in art of all kinds, at all times and places. People often paint their idea of what a thing looks like, rather than trying to copy what they actually see. And since everyone else in their culture shares that idea of what the thing looks like, no one notices (until conventions changed or until photography was invented).

    If you went to a children’s art class today, most drawings would be similarly idealized. But there have been “transparent” artists who drew what they saw, even in the Middle Ages. Albrecht Durer’s drawings and watercolors are practically timeless.

    Sadly, even today but especially in the past, spontaneus drawings like Durer’s were often just first stages in the construction of a finished work,and the finished work often employs the conventions of the day,ruining the drawing. Many of Durer’s finished oil paintings are less “transparent’ than his “studies”.

    This happens today as well. Compare Margaret Mee’s lovely botanical field sketches made in watercolor with her finished work in oils. This is very common among nature artists. Louis Agassiz Fuertes, famous bird artist, is another whose loose watercolors are wonderful but whose oils often show the conventions of the day.

    • Harrison
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Thing is, if you look at the art of the late Roman and early Christian period, what you’ll find is often the exact same artists painting both the exquisitely idealized Greek-inspired figures as painted the weird, misshapen, unrealistic figures popular in early and Medieval Christian art. I think it’s a mistake to compare what they were doing to children, who draw as they do because they’re unable to do any better. This was a deliberate, society-wide shift in artistic mores.

      • Posted April 17, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        Children can often draw well when they learn to draw what they observe instead of using conventions and symbols.

        Yes,an artist will often stylize his “serious” paintings, and as I said, this goes on even today.

  10. Posted April 17, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Different time, different way of seeing cats?

    Carl Kruse

  11. Posted April 17, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    “. . .medieval artists simply couldn’t paint cats accurately.”

    It’s not really a question of accuracy. As the 12th-century French theologian and poet Alan of Lille, wrote: “Every creature of the world / Is like a book and a picture / To us, and a mirror” (italics mine).

    Putting human faces on cats (and other animals) reflected a pervasive belief of the Middle Ages that plants and animals had symbolic significance for humans, who could read nature like a book to help reveal and interpret spiritual truth. Now, of course, we read nature literally, much like fundamentalist Christians read the Bible.

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Well, as an ex-girlfriend of mine used to say, “a cat is a person in a little fur suit”. With which I agree. But I still prefer that they look like cats!

  12. busterggi
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Cats can see well even in the dark ages, human painters not so much.

  13. Sshort
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    The cats are probably an afterthought, a piece of set decoration, and were not as carefully studied as, say, the surface effects of fabrics, metals and jewels. These things were imitated closely to flatter the subject and prove the skill of the artist.

    The artists probably did OK on fur and limbs and a swash of tail, but then dashed off a heuristic for “face” without more careful feline scrutiny.

  14. Brian Salkas
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Thaty last one makes me feel better about myself. Whenever I mess something up, I’m gonna look at that to make myself feel better.

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone noticed that, in a bizarre reversal of what happened to the kittehs’ faces, that last ‘restored’ Jesus face looks almost – cat-like? 😉


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just realised that PCC noticed exactly that and said so in the text! Gods I’m thick at times 8-(

      (why doesn’t WP have a ‘delete-and-hide-my-embarrassment’ button?)

  16. jeffery
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I took a college slide/lecture course back in the early 70s entitled, “Ancient and Primitive Art”, after which I wrote an essay that I titled, “Why does primitive art look ‘primitive’?” Unfortunately, I’ve lost it over the years, but in it I contested what, at the time, I saw to be a “ladder of culture” attitude that seemed to imply that the more advanced a culture was, the more realistic their renderings of the real world would be (what we call “modern and or abstract art” was simply a deliberate aberration from this rule). I don’t remember exactly what my conclusions in the essay were (or if I even finished it) but today I continue to be fascinated by the phenomenon of how different cultures’ art varies at different times and in different places, when the creatures that are producing it are seemingly identical for the most part. I believe that there’s several factors involved: one may indeed be genetic; our DNA determines how our sense organs work, as well as determining how our brains process that information. Centuries ago, although there was some interbreeding between different genetic populations widely separated by distance or geography (importation of slaves; invasions, what few “tourists” there were, etc.), much of the DNA in a particular region’s population would probably been much more homogeneous than today- could it be that DNA not only influenced what we saw, but HOW we saw it?
    Then there’s the cultural aspect: why, 20,000 years ago, did Cro-Magnon Man paint such realistic depictions of prey and “totem” beasts in caves, while humans were, at best, depicted as stick figures? Why was the sculpture of ancient Egypt incredibly lifelike, while in their 2-D art, people were always depicted in profile? And what of the grotesque stylizations of MesoAmerican art, that seems like something you’d see on a bad acid trip? I do believe that drugs played a role, as I myself have experienced (this was years ago when I was more adventurous)”visions” highly similar to that of Hindu and MesoAmerican art, as well as the patterns used so extensively in Islamic art. It must be remembered, as well, that the job of “artist” is a relatively recent one in human history: only when wealth was accumulated by agrarian societies did there evolve a “wealthy” class that could support the basic needs of artisans who could then devote their energies to their craft rather than having to gather food. What the “wealthy” (who were usually rulers, as well) thought was “pretty” was what the artisan created in order to get paid, of course, and the talents (and habits in rendering)of the particular artists were passed on to their students, slowly creating a “school”; a tradition, of depicting things in the real world in a certain manner. I look at depictions of exotic animals (elephants, crocodiles, birds, etc.) from the 13-1800s and wonder, “Why didn’t they just make it look like what it LOOKS like?” but I have to remember that today, were you to give a pencil and piece of paper to ten different people and have them draw a horse from life, you’d get everything from a stick figure to a lifelike drawing complete with shading and shadows. After having grown disgusted with the “Art World’s” endless, anal dissection of what “art” is supposed to “be”, I’ve come up with my own description: “Art is anything produced by the human hand.”

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Some years ago I went to a Van Gogh exhibit in Los Angeles, and while contemplating Wheatfield with Crows I overheard the guy behind me say “No wonder he killed himself. He couldn’t even paint a crow right.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      So that was you standing in front of me with a disapproving look on his dial?
      (Actually, no, I’ve never been in LA).

      But it would be fair to say that I don’t ‘get’ van Gogh. Turner, yes, Monet, Sisley, Rousseau’s weird geometric jungles.

      But van Gogh’s work is just too rough-hewn for me.


      • Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        When I was twenty, so many decades ago, I went to a massive exhibit of Van Gogh’s work at the Brooklyn Museum. I knew of his Sunflowers from photos which seem leaden and odd to me. Until then I had no idea of the scope of his oeuvre. Reading his letters to his brother which I did as soon as possible after seeing the exhibit added another dimension in appreciating his passionate connection with the art he made. He painted only for about two decades before he committed suicide at age 37 (it is suspected he was schizoaffective which is comorbidity of bipolar and schizophrenia) but was able to complete 900 paintings and made 1,100 drawing/sketches. During that time he developed into a colourist par excellence. His paint strokes are blunt and crude, I grant that, but they are just colour vehicles. Vincent to his brother Theo (and it because of that brother that we know the art of Van Gogh, otherwise it would have been lost or perhaps not even made because Theo always stood by him):

        “Colour expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful — is also right.” And in that regard Van Gogh is the rightest of all painters.

        Wonderful discussion on this thread, thanks to everybody, especially to Lou Jost and LB.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:54 am | Permalink

          I agree, looking at his works the choice of colors stands out, and I do like it. And the energy is obvious.

          But to me van Goghs always look half-finished, as if he’d roughed it in but hadn’t had time to complete the details.

          And – I know realism is the wrong thing to ask for in this context (I can hardly ask that as a Turner aficionado!) but e.g. Starry Night just suffers from the highly visible brush strokes. They’re just too distinct and obtrusive. And stars just don’t have haloes round them (and if they did they’d be misty, not hard-edged). His brush strokes are just too solid and hard-edged to look convincing. Same goes for many of his clouds. Cornfields fare better in that respect.

          Just my own tastes, of course.


  18. Jonathan Dore
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Not just cats — everything, including humans. European art reached a zenith of realism between the 5th century BC and the 3rd century AD. Even by the early 4th century there was a noticeable falling off in quality (compare statues of Constantine with those of Severus a century earlier), and while a type of very stylized depiction continued in the Eastern Roman empire (though even there declining — compare the Ravenna mosaics of the mid-6th century with the style of icon painting prevalent by the 10th) in the West artists had pretty much lost the cultural tradition and technical know-how to depict anything realistically by the 7th century. It wasn’t fully regained until Donatello in the mid-15th. That’s 800 years of people fumbling about not really caring about accuracy of depiction, and not being able to do better even if they did care.

  19. allison
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Perhaps cats actually looked like that in the Middle Ages?

    The second one above reminds me of PZ Myers, for some reason.

  20. Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    It is a shame we do not have more records of artists documenting their work!

  21. Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    The cats are creepy. And the first one has a rat tail to boot.

    • busterggi
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      My cat Muffin had a mouse tail.

      It was hanging out of her mouth.

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