A reader’s take on why medieval artists couldn’t paint cats

For many months I’ve been urging reader (and writer) Laurie Sindoni (half of the staff of Theo, the coffee-drinking cat), to examine the question of why medieval artists couldn’t paint cats. I’ve given examples on this site of ludicrously substandard cat art—and it isn’t just medieval art, either. For some reason, artists up to the 19th century couldn’t paint cats, either!

Now, on her site A Classicist Writes, Laurie has finally come to grips with this most vexing question. Click on the screenshot below (note the nice dedication to yours truly) to see her various theories and then her ultimate explanation for bad cat art.

I won’t give away the ending, but to tempt you I show two photos from her analysis: Penis Cat and Loofah Cat:

 

17 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Is there any iconography that is trying to be evoked? I know snails are supposed to mean something and they often show snail everything: snail cats, snail soldiers, rabbits riding snails. And rabbits have some sort of meaning too.

  3. Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Not very observant those artists. The head of the cat with the human penis & scrotum looks more like a Stoat (Ferret) which was a common pet among the upper class. The 2nd cat has a prehensile tail like the American Opossum – that is painful to look at.

  4. Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Also, the legend is Flaisch macht Flaisch (Old German) which translates as “meat is (makes) meat” thus the fish isn’t any tastier or less than the genitalia

  5. Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    One factor no one has mentioned is that in medieval times animals were considered not only to have souls but to be morally responsible creatures. Barbara Tuchman, in her great book A Distant Mirror, cites examples of animals and even insects being put on trial and executed for various crimes. This might explain why cats and other animals in medieval paintings often resemble humans more than their contemporary counterparts and (therefore?) are also uglier. Moral responsibility takes a toll!

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Read the book “The Criminal Prosecution and Execution of Animals.” It’ll tell you everything you wanted to know and then some about that abominable practice. Terribly sad.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        There should have been criminal prosecution (but not execution) of medieval artists who couldn’t draw cats.

  6. revelator60
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Roman artists apparently fared better with cats. Here’s a famous cat mosaic found in Pompeii:

    Roman painters also knew about perspective long before it was “discovered” in the Renaissance. It’s sobering to realize how much knowledge was lost in between those era.

    Sadly, most Roman painting and almost all Greek painting has been lost to time. But thanks to Vesuvius some Roman wall paintings have survived.

    • revelator60
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Apologies for the unintentionally embedded picture in my post and all its grammatical errors—I didn’t get much sleep last night!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Now that is a very good depiction of a cat.

        (By the way, I don’t think you’ve transgressed, AFAIK it’s okay to imbed pictures in comments, just not videos, because bandwidth).

        cr

      • Posted November 12, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        I enjoyed it, and our host is unlikely to object against a nice mosaic of a cat with ducks as a bonus.

  7. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I read the article. So far as I can tell the only purported conclusion was ‘because they didn’t like cats’.

    I’m completely unconvinced. That is saying that (almost) all mediaeval artists disliked cats? But why would that be so?

    We know that today some people don’t like cats, but the majority do. It seems unlikely that any genetic predisposition will have changed in the last few hundred years, so any change must have been cultural. Is there any evidence of that?

    Or is there any evidence that artists, as a subset of the population, should have different preferences re cats?

    The article does mention in passing the mediaeval lack of understanding of perspective. I have an impression that in mediaeval art faces were generally drawn in profile; the artists couldn’t do three-quarter views. Maybe this could be somehow related to the badness of animal depictions in general.

    One supporting point for the article’s thesis (or rather, a possible falsification that doesn’t exist) is that the ancient Egyptians, who liked/revered cats, portrayed them fairly realistically (judging by a quick Google of images).

    cr

  8. Diane G
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Fun article, love all the examples. Thanks, Laurie!

  9. allison
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Maybe cats just looked different a few hundred years ago? 🤣

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      Haha deformities from various plagues or maybe that’s how they are supposed to look but the pollution of modernity altered them to what we think are normal cats now.

  10. helenahankart
    Posted November 2, 2018 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Could it be that cats refuse to sit still for artists?

  11. Jose
    Posted November 3, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I take Laurie’s post as a bit of amusement. the aproach is not very useful. First, I would take a sample big enough of cat paintings and drawings, and look for exceptions or at least variations in the ugliness/corectness escale, and try to see how the context of the paintings and painters, drawings and drawers, could account for the variations. Then I would try to extract some kind of rule and try to apply it to to instances out of the initial sample. I would try to examine also the transition between the periods when cats were poorly represented and when they were not and try to extract some conclusions from the social changes along said transition, and how sudden or how paced It was.


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