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Why Do Cats Have Human Faces in Medieval Art?

There’s a rather grim explanation for this style...

Do you love cats? Are you one of those who usually sleep with them every night or spend long hours in bed enjoying their company while watching movies? Do you prefer them over dogs because of their mystical, somewhat sullen, yet affectionate nature and independent life?

If your answers were yes, you probably know that these felines spend two-thirds of the day sleeping, that the hairballs they expel from their throats are called trichobezoars, that they take care of their own grooming, that their tongue is not capable of perceiving sweet tastes or that they start dreaming from their first week of life. Likely, you have already read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” countless times, and you know that Murakami’s books often include these felines. In addition, you surely have at least a dozen T-shirts with images of them. However, there is something you may not know about cats, and it is precisely the answer to the question that titles this text.

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Why Do Cats Have Human Faces in Medieval Paintings?

In the Middle Ages, most of the population lacked adequate education to enable them to think beyond solving their basic daily needs. Women, men, and even children harvested, hunted, and traded to earn their daily sustenance. Their world was reduced to satisfying their hunger, making their clothes, bringing firewood to their homes to warm the long winter nights, and little else. Scientific, philosophical, and religious questions were not part of their mental patterns. Knowledge was in the hands (and in the minds) of a few who could read, usually people close to the Church and from wealthy homes who decided the lives of all peasants and people belonging to the working class.

Given the lack of education and culture of the majority of the population, somehow the Church had to get the messages of indoctrination to its faithful followers. The distribution of pamphlets was unthinkable since no one could understand the texts printed there. Since an image has a much more immediate and sometimes more impacting character, the Church decided that, through art, it could make known the moral message it wished to instill in its parishioners.

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Almost all medieval art fulfills this educational mission by the imposition on the artists, who renounced carrying out personal work in pursuit of serving the Church in its campaign. The representation of animals with human faces (especially cats) walking on two legs, clutching objects, or playing musical instruments, is not the product of chance or the whim of creating fantastic art. Through these drawings or paintings, they wanted to represent the vices, sins, and virtues of humans in animals to give a moral lesson.

The Bible speaks of the physical and spiritual purity of the first human beings (Adam and Eve) before falling under the temptation of the Forbidden Fruit and committing the first original sin. As soon as the couple that lived in Eden lost their character of purity, they were expelled and lowered to the condition of fallen nature, inferior or corrupted, almost as wild as an animal couple. So humans had to be represented this way to make folk realize the consequences of transgressing the sacred precepts. Medieval art wanted to convey this message to its subjects: sin and you will become a primitive species, with a savage character and irrational thoughts like those of a beast. This message was embodied, as we have already seen, in bipedal cats carrying out actions intended only for humans.

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María Dolores-Carmen Morales Muñiz, an expert in the art of the Middle Ages, says: “However, it must also be said that, because of the way the medieval artist worked -the doctrine of imitation-, much of the animal art of this period was not necessarily symbolic. In other words, the depiction of the animal could, at times, respond to strictly decorative criteria. On many occasions, the animal was simply copied from Greco-Roman and pagan traditions without the slightest hint of turning it into a symbol of anything [...]. St. Bernard, in particular, defended animal aniconism and did not consider them particularly useful as religious symbols.”

Humans and Animals: A Strange Relationship in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, public trials were held against animals when they committed judicial “misdemeanors.” For example, in 1457, in Savigny, France, a sow and her piglets were accused and tried after attacking a 5-year-old boy, according to a group of witnesses. The animals were brought to trial while her piglets were exonerated. At that time, people believed in a strict hierarchical order in which God was at the top, humans in second place, and animals at the bottom.

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The latter were treated as inferior beings who had to answer for their acts as one would do with a man. Their conception of the divine order was so strict that it was necessary to restore it through appropriate punishment. That is why the paintings where the animals appeared with human faces were the perfect representation to warn that any fault would be equivalent to “becoming” an inferior being abandoned by God.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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