Friday, 13 August 2010

The Curious Incidence of Felines in Paintings of the Virgin Mary – Michelle Lovric


The Da Vinci Code tugs the veil off ‘the sacred feminine’. According to Dan Brown’s novel, this cult was ruthlessly suppressed by sinister elements in the Catholic Church. Brown’s Code suggests that generations of acolytes continued to worship ‘underground’, transmitting their faith in the language of symbols.

So – what if the same thing happened to cats?
Worshipped and misunderstood to the point of persecution, the cat has suffered a similar fate to the Magdalene’s. Cats, like witches, were once even burned at the stake. (Of course, cats’ fortunes, like women’s, are currently on the rise.)

It’s a little-known but fascinating fact that Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Murillo, Lorenzo Lotto, Giulio Romano and many others inserted a portrait of a cat into their depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Intrigued by da Vinci’s sketch of a Madonna cradling a baby and a cat in her arms, I began to look into the matter a couple of years ago. You know how it is with cat lovers: one cat leads to another, and another. In the end, my quest put me on the road, on a journey through the backwaters of northern Italy, to abandoned churches in remote towns such as Bagolino, Isola Dovarese and Esine, and to Siena, Perugia and Florence.

The more cats-and-Madonnas I saw, the greater my craving. I became bold and implacable. Flabbergasted priests were dragged from their lunch tables to unlock their churches. Engaged couples arriving for their blessing were made to wait while I entreated their priest: ‘Lei sarebbe così gentile da mostrarmi la Vostra Madonna con gatta, per cortesia!’ (‘Kindly show me your Madonna and Cat, please!’)
In the library and on the internet, I tracked down yet more pictures. Cats are to be found with Madonnas in Russia, in France, in Greece, in America and in eastern Europe. Annunciations with cats. Holy Families with Cats. Births of the Virgin with cats. Tabby cats. White cats. Grey cats. Sleeping cats. Running cats. Cats who stare out of the painting, as if narrating the story. In the church of San Giorgio at Montemerano there’s a Madonna della Gattaiola, a painting of the Virgin with a perforation said to serve as a cat-flap.
Had I uncovered a secret cult? If I had, then it’s still secret, for no one has yet established the link between all these pictures.
However, all this exciting research came to a sad end. I thought the book was going to be published by a big American house that loved the idea. I’d worked with them before and was delighted with their enthusiasm. Then suddenly all the material was returned with a regretful note.

Wires had been crossed. I’d seen it as a $25 book, lavishly illustrated, something to appeal to the art market, the gift book market, the cat market and even the Christmas market. But the publisher had seen it as a very small gift book. And a $9.98 price tag would never support the reproduction fees for 80 paintings from museums and churches around the world.

Or so they said.

As I filed the research in a wicker basket, and regretfully set to work on something more commercial, I did idly wonder if Opus Dei (or Dan Brown’s sinister version of them) might have had a hand in the suppression of a 'Da Vinci code' for cats.

There are no cats in the Bible, an omission that has allowed some Christians to brand them as evil. (Llamas and kangaroos aren’t mentioned either, but they haven’t been anathematized.)

Cats certainly disregard the part of the Bible where God gives Man dominion over all the animals. Cats obey none of the Ten Commandments. Cats are the familiars of women. Cats are feminine. Many people – many, many people – worship their cats.

It’s all adding up, isn’t it?

Of course Dan Brown’s Christian fundamentalists would want to suppress the Sacred Feline just as much as the Sacred Feminine.

Maybe even more ruthlessly?





Michelle Lovric’s website


Michelle Lovric will be discussing ways to write about Venice with Katie Hickman at the Edinburgh Festival on August 21st.

Picture: Virgin with cat (part of an Annunciation fresco) by Pietro da Cemmo (c.1474-1504) at the Church of Santa Maria at Esine, Italy.

10 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant, Michelle! And how sad about the book: I would love to have read it and seen all the illustrations. And wouldn't it make a wonderful Christmas gift for a cat-lover? I shall be on the look out for Madonnas and cats in galleries from now on.

But perhaps it's mainly because pictures of the Madonna are usually domestic interiors, and what other animal is as likely to be indoors?

catdownunder said...

Miaou! I am glad you understand and appurreciate the impurrortance of our purrlace in the overall scheme of things!

michelle lovric said...

Kath, I didn't want to overburden the post with details, but one theory about why the Madonna's companion is a cat is this: it's said a cat littered under the manger in Bethlehem and that the cat's maternal tenderness mirrored the Virgin's, while the cat and kitten provided entertainment for the baby Jesus. There's a story in Italy that pregnant women go to buy a tabby cat as soon as they conceive, and that the 'M' marking on the tabby's forehead signifies 'The Madonna'.
(In the case of my cat, it signifies 'Mischief'.)

Similarly, Mary came to embody the virtues of the Roman goddess Vesta, who ruled over the home and hearth. The cat, being the cleanest of animals, is associated with good housekeeping.

The sleeping cat is said to symbolize the Virgin's calmness at the Annunciation. Lotto's Annunciation, however, has a cat scurrying away central to the scene - the fleeing cat could symbolise the devil’s terror at the approaching Incarnation – or is it symbolising Mary’s own natural fear at both the news of the great spiritual revolution and her own impending pregnancy?

And a cat often seen stalking a goldfinch in Holy Family scenes may be less positive: the goldfinch was thought to be fond of thistles, thereby associating it with Christ’s eventual crown of thorns … a cat like this in a scene of Christ’s childhood could prefigure the threat not just to Christ but to humanity’s salvation at his hands. In this case the cat might be seen to be on the diabolical side of things.

I could go on ... but this is already in danger of turning into another post. Sorry!

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, Michelle, I think the book should be published, and that your adult agent - is it someone at A.M.Heath? should pursue the matter.
On the topic of the Other Domestic Friend, we were in Paris for a wedding the other weekend, and as always when in Paris, nipped in to look at the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries. No cats there, but this little Maltese-type terrier, showing that lapdogs already existed in the late Middle Ages.

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

Goldfinches do indeed love thistle seeds - not myth.

I see you think of the cat as feminine ("gatta"). This is very common in the UK - cats referred to as "she" and dogs as "he". Very confusing for my poor Lorenzo, although he is not entirely male!

Fascinating topic and can I have the book please?

michelle lovric said...

Thank you for all the nice comments!

Yes, the paintings are superb. And the research is all done, if ever anyone ever wanted to take it up in a more prosperous future.(Meanwhile I continue to check every Annunciation, every Birth of Virgin and Holy Family that comes my way on my travels). In this climate, sadly, gift books are getting smaller and smaller.

Leslie, A.M. Heath represent my fiction for adults and children (and do so superbly) but not my illustrated non-fiction. All the mistakes I make in the that department are my own.

Mary - now I have a female cat, they are all female to me. When I had males ... I suppose they were all Lorenzos.

I'd have to say that many of the cats in the paintings look female to me, with the notable exception of my favourite Barocci at Urbino. He is the cat that mitigates the entire narrative from the bottom left hand corner, with a direct and challenging gaze set upon the viewer.

And now we all see the danger of cat talk and cat world ... look how greedy it is of our time!

Jeff Cotton said...

Cats do tend to be the sex of your current cat(s), it's true, until proven otherwise. Not sure if this works with children too.

Jan Markley said...

That's an amazing story! I had no idea. Thanks for enlightening me. I smell a devinci code like conspiracy - throw a little cat nip on it and the cats will sniff it out!

catdownunder said...

The more I think about this the more I am coming to believe there IS a story in all this. I even have vague ideas as to a plot. Please do not waste all that research!

Leslie Wilson said...

Amusing, this popular assumption that all dogs are male dogs and all cats female cats. How do the species reproduce, I wonder? Msybe with each other, and each cat produces a litter of half dogs and half cats. The big dogs have a lot of growing to do..