ST GERTRUDE’S DAY PROMPTS BRIEF LOOK AT CATS IN ART HISTORY
Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: March 17, 2023
March 17 is a day when many celebrate the supposed elimination of snakes from Ireland by indulging in all things green for St Patrick’s Day.
But it’s also a day that has become associated with another hissing, mice-eating creature — cats.
March 17 is St Gertrude’s Day, a saint who has become the unofficial patron saint of cats, probably due to her association with warding off rats and mice.
To mark the unofficial day of cats, we take an unofficial, far from definitive, look at felines in European fine art through the ages.
Cats and artists
Australian artist Christabel Blackman says cats are an inspiration.
“There’s always something you can learn from a cat,” she says.
Ms Blackman’s family has a long history with the arts and cats.
Her father was Charles Blackman, one of the most celebrated Australian painters of the 20th century and known for his black cat paintings.
Her brother, Auguste, is an artist and so is her daughter, Pepa.
“For Charles, my father, and for my daughter as well, we love painting gardens,” Ms Blackman says.
“It’s a human element because cats are domesticated animals, so you imagine this person there as well.”
Ms Blackman says she feels the nature of artists works well with cats as companions, which leads to the animals appearing in the artworks.
“They become exceptionally close to you when you are alone,” she says.
“If you are gardening, they will roll around under a bush or sit and outstare a daisy.
“When you are sitting working, a cat will snuggle in behind you on the chair or sit in the studio window patiently, maybe chattering with the birds.
From gods to the devil
Art historian and former vet, Katherine Kovacic, has a particular interest in domesticated animals in art.
She says while sometimes cats are used as an allegory for something else, she believes artists often included the creatures in their works just because they were there and they liked them.
“It’s a really interesting sort of window into society through history to look at how animals interact with people and where they are in the picture,” she says.
Not all ancient artworks with cats are like Egyptian depictions of the gods and cats revered as holy creatures, with Dr Kovacic saying even back then there were depictions of cats just being playful.
Domesticated cats started to be featured on ancient Greek pottery and Roman mosaics as felines were beginning to overtake weasels as the rodent-deterring pet of choice.
By the 5th century CE cats had made their way across most of Europe, but their reputation was mixed.
“The Middle Ages weren’t good to cats, in art or in anything, and that was really down to Christianity,” Dr Kovacic says.
It’s thought that some in the Catholic Church — a religion that was determined to make its mark on the world in the Middle Ages — didn’t like cats due to their association with a number of non-Christian religions.
In the 1200s, Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull that referenced black cats as an evil entity associated with a ritual by a satanic cult.
It is often cited as the moment the Catholic Church declared a war on cats.
Despite this, cats keep popping up in art throughout the Middle Ages, including as little doodles and funny characters in the edges of illustrated manuscripts written by Catholic monks.
“Coming into the Renaissance … cats start to become one of the animals that witness divine happenings,” Dr Kovacic says.
Dr Kovacic says while there are more portraits of people posed with their dogs, cats still sneak in in the background or playing under the table or chair.
Cats were gaining popularity as pets among the European court classes by the 1700s, so they started to appear in more paintings as artists would show what their wealthy clients wanted them to show.
“That was what the bourgeois and the upper and middle class were doing; they were having pets in their lives,” Dr Kovacic says.
An Australian take
Cats arrived in Australia on ships with European colonisers, but they didn’t appear much in Australian art until more recent times.
“I think the John Perceval [Boy with cat 2] is probably one of the most well-known cats in Australia,” Dr Kovacic says.
A contemporary to John Perceval, Charles Blackman painted cats he noticed in the urban landscape.
“Charles loved cats,” his daughter, Christabel Blackman, says. “In the early 50s, he painted a lot of moggies, the strays of Melbourne, up on roofs and on the prowl.
And March 17 has meaning for the Blackman family. “My grandmother was Gertrude,” Ms Blackman says. “She was a bit like a cat herself, always in the garden amongst the flowers.”
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