Part I: Do cats rule this planet?

Few people can resist the temptation to take a picture of a cute kitty or puppy, share or “like” one, and even fewer people would admit they have this frailty. Many complain other people clutter their Facebook page with cats, and then furtively re-post the syrupy images. Even if you are not afflicted personally by the plague, I am sure you have a friend who suffers from the CFHD (Canine-Feline Hypocrisy Disorder) in acute or chronic form.

Don’t be ashamed, if you are a sufferer yourself. Great artists were not immune to this highly contagious disease, and moreover, they are directly responsible for spreading it long before photography was invented.

No? You say, patient zero lived in Egypt millennia ago?


I’ll rephrase it: great artists were responsible for the relapse of this epidemic. Everyone knows the craze began with the long-dead Ancient Egyptians, who worshiped cats and wrote on walls (a living proof that human needs don’t change, but simply adapt to new means of communication), and continued with Romans, but it died out in the Dark Middle Ages! For centuries cats were largely confined to Romanesque capitals, as hellish beasts, book illustrations of witch trials, as witch companions, and the Arc’s boarding scenes, as freeloaders. The art world was 99,9% cat-free! (see an update on medieval times at the bottom)

And then the second coming of the Cat occurred. At the outset, it was slow: the first symptoms appeared during the Renaissance, and now I summon Leonardo to the witness box, with his numerous cat drawings. We can’t be certain, if he actually loved cats, for it seems he was using his cats as models for…dragons!

Leonardo da Vinci, study of cats

A few years after da Vinci, and obviously quite oblivious of his attempts at creating genetically modified reptiloids, Hieronymus Bosch used a cat to send a moral message.

In his Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch painted a cat that carries a dead rat away. It is about to leave the picture plane, informing us that no rats will be tolerated.

Hieronymus Bosch, detail, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480

Twenty years later Bosch painted another cat, but I am not sure I can decipher its moral meaning. Perhaps, you can help.

This is the Temptation of St.Antony. A beautiful naked girl fails to distract the saint from his book. I believe many women, as well as men, would resonate with the concept of how hard it is to make your beloved stop using their damn phone or iPad and start paying attention to what you say! It is the cat that actually makes the saint look up.

Hieronymus Bosch, detail, The Temptation of St.Antony, 1500

The cat grabs a fish and hisses at the exhibitionist nude caught in the innocent act of sexual harassment of a demon-tormented, but otherwise agreeable and pious man.

One may wonder if Bosch had seen a live cat prior to painting it, but the cat-human relationship is represented with amazing psychological authenticity.

Ever since that time, cats have been massively featured in paintings, sculptures, wedding invitations, and slang words for female genitalia (yes, le chat’s and pussy’s other meaning dates back to the 15th century).

Painting a fight between a cat and a dog was a simple way to highlight a conflict between loyalty and fickleness, good and evil. The playful genius of Titian couldn’t miss the opportunity:

Titian’s Supper at Emmaus – 1535
Titian’s Supper at Emmaus – 1535

Still, many viewed cats with suspicion at the time (thank you, Bosch), and artists would prefer dogs. It was Titian’s contemporary and rival, Veronese, who managed to re-focus public attention on cats’ harmless playfulness. He planted a pussy wherever the Church wouldn’t mind seeing it, and once in a painting for which he was, actually, tried by the Inquisition.

Detail of cat, Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573
Detail of cat, Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi

It took about two hundred years to change cats’ mediaeval associations with witchcraft, dissipation, and treason into those of grace, playfulness, and ruining expensive fabrics.

By the end of the 18th century, a Rococo portrait with a cat had become a celebration of the sitter’s femininity, and the list of artists who used cats as props becomes too long to hold in memory.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Girl Playing with a Dog and a Cat, ca. 1775-1780
Jean Honoré Fragonard, Girl Playing with a Dog and a Cat, ca. 1775-1780
Jean Honoré Fragonard Grasse 1732 – 1806 Paris Marguerite Gérard Grasse 1761 – 1837 Paris The Angora Cat c. 1783, Oil on canvas, 65 x 53.5 cm
Jean Honoré Fragonard & Marguerite Gérard — The Angora Cat, c. 1783, Oil on canvas

There is a theory that cats rule this planet as projections of some higher beings into our three-dimensional universe. As with most crazy theories, it can be disputed, but not refuted, and is very easy to convert to. If established religions require a good measure of miracles to defend their claims, believers in the cat dominance idea can fend off any argument by texting you the address of a cat lady in your neighbourhood.  Go check it out yourself, they say.

This theory helps to understand what happened next.

Cats, as higher beings, could not stay happy for long. They wanted to play a more active role in the governance of the Human Society.

They chose France and Japan as the base for their blitzkrieg.

Important PS. The last painting in this post, co-authored by a man and a woman is really cool, if you care to look into it. The back wall with a picture of domesticated, productive animals and the servant’s face is the contrasting world against which the freewheeling nobility is playing their games – go deeper into the glass ball to see the spectators of the show. The rising importance of cats can clearly be seen here: the dog is on the floor, a spectator in whom no one is interested any more!

To confirm the fundamental change in feline societal standing, the lady who co-authored the previous painting made her own version of the cat dominance over dogs. Poor little puppy has to watch, silently, how a much bigger fat cat is being offered a sacrificial bowl of milk.

Le Déjeuner du Chat (The Cat's Lunch) Marguerite Gérard
Le Déjeuner du Chat (The Cat’s Lunch) Marguerite Gérard

UPDATE ON MEDIEVAL IMAGERY – A few interesting images from the Middle Ages that are not about cats’ treacherous nature can be found in manuscripts.

Music therapy can’t cure the cat’s melancholy. Neither the immaculate pedicure, nor the blue pullover scarf (I love it, BTW) seem to be helping.

Book of Hours, France, 15th c

A proper family of celestial cats living in a world with multiple moons (or very expensive wall-paper): father the hunter, mother the fridge manager, and son the procrastinating son of mother the fridge manager.


Stay tuned for Part II to learn how exactly cats subjugated this planet.


  1. Le chat dans ce cas la ressemble plutôt a un Diable, il est attiré par le fumé du poisson, mais lorgne la ” pucelle ” , qui masque son sexe, pourquoi ? est- il utile de le préciser …?!!!

    1. I like your theory of the cat being torn between the fish and the beauty )) Aren’t men like this? Funny, as cats were most often associated with women at the time, but in this case it seems you’ve landed the male meaning!

  2. Do you know this?
    and the books (series) by Lilian Jacson Braun “The cat who….”

    I had got cats, I think cats are very intelligent. My point of view is that dogs believe that we uman are their Gods, and accept all from us, cats think we are their slaves and pretend all from us; in effect cats aren’t domesticated, they live with us taking part of our comfort and giving us what we ask them, but only when they agree.
    Cats are every time free and independent, therefore I liked and respected them, and they accepted and loved me.
    Good evening.

    1. Hello, Neda – I’ve seen the series, thank you! I am sure cats are intelligent and independent, and I also have first-hand knowledge about it. I am just having fun going through art history and watching the evolution of artistic attitudes to this wonderful animal!

      1. I am every times astonished about the reprisal towards cats made in Middle Ages and I’m very happy I had not lived in that time or I was burned as witch with my black cat.
        Ciao dall’Italia!

  3. Thanks for the interesting interpretation. I never thought of a cat or animal as a prop. It would work well in those epic paintings.

    1. One prop role for cats I didn’t write about was to symbolise treason. Artists would often use a cat in their Last Supper painting as a sign of Juda’s betrayal of Christ. You can see it in the Sistine Chapel, or in Ghirlandaio’s fresco in San Marco

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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