Art History Lab

Cats in Art: Unraveling the Enigmatic World of Medieval and Renaissance Paintings

Cats have been revered and misunderstood for centuries, and nowhere is this more evident than in the strange and complex world of medieval and Renaissance art. These incredible paintings capture the essence of feline nature in unexpected and often bizarre ways, reflecting the attitudes and beliefs of the time.

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of medieval and Renaissance cat paintings, delve into their symbolism, and admire the works of some of the most talented artists of the era. Medieval and Renaissance Cat Paintings:

In the Middle Ages, cats were often portrayed as strange and even sinister creatures.

They were associated with witchcraft and Paganism, and many people believed that they were in league with the devil. This is reflected in the many strange and unsettling paintings that depict cats from this period.

For example, one painting from the 14th century shows a cat standing on its hind legs, wearing a human mask on its face. Another shows a group of cats playing musical instruments, with a figure that may be the devil himself leading the way.

These paintings reflect the belief that cats were not just unintelligent animals, but rather cunning and malevolent beings. Things changed somewhat during the Renaissance, when cats began to be seen in a more positive light.

They were still portrayed as mysterious creatures, but there was less of a focus on their supposed ties to the occult. Perhaps the most famous example of a Renaissance cat painting is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” which shows a woman holding a small ermine in her arms.

While not strictly a cat, the ermine is closely related, and the painting captures the essence of feline grace and cunning. Symbolism of Animals in Medieval Culture:

In medieval times, animals were seen as a mirror of human culture.

They were often used to represent virtues and vices, as well as different aspects of personality and behavior. Dogs, for example, were seen as obedient and loyal, while cats were seen as mysterious and even dangerous.

This is reflected in the many paintings from this era that depict cats as either witches’ familiars or symbols of illicit desire. Renowned Artists and their Cat Paintings:

Throughout the Renaissance and medieval periods, many artists were drawn to the mysterious nature of cats, and their art reflects this fascination.

For example, Antonio DUbertino Verdi, a Renaissance Italian painter, created many paintings featuring cats, including one that shows a group of felines lounging around a banquet table. Lorenzo Lotto, another Renaissance artist, also painted a number of cat-themed works, including “Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling,” which shows a woman holding a cat in the background.

Other notable artists who painted cats include Hans Asper, Paolo Veronese, Marten van Cleve, Otto van Veen, John de Critz, Joachim Wtewael, Nicolaes Maes, and David de Coninck. Portrait of a Young Lady Holding a Cat:

One of the most famous cat paintings of all time is Antonio DUbertino Verdi’s “Portrait of a Young Lady Holding a Cat.” This painting, which dates from the 16th century, shows a wealthy young woman holding a cat in her lap.

The cat is preoccupied, staring off into the distance, while the woman looks straight ahead, calm and composed. This painting is an excellent example of the Renaissance obsession with the mysterious nature of cats, and it captures the essence of the feline world in exquisite detail.


Throughout history, cats have been a source of fascination and mystery, inspiring some of the most well-known and beloved art in existence. From medieval witchcraft to Renaissance elegance, the world of cat paintings is rich and varied, reflecting the different attitudes and beliefs of the time.

Whether strange and unsettling or calm and composed, these paintings offer us a glimpse into the enduring appeal of the feline world. Recanati Annunciation:

The Recanati Annunciation painting is a masterpiece created by Lorenzo Lotto, a prominent artist of the Northern European art style.

The painting is an excellent example of Lotto’s expressive motions, with figures that evoke strong emotional reactions from viewers. One of the most striking features of the Recanati Annunciation painting is the undersized heads of the figures.

Mary and the angel that appear in the painting have disproportionately small heads, which draws attention to their expressive faces and bodies. This is characteristic of Northern European art and adds to the emotional depth of the painting.

The Recanati Annunciation depicts a familiar biblical scene, but in an unexpected manner. The painting shows Mary being greeted by an angel who informs her that she has been chosen by God to give birth to Jesus.

But instead of the serene and peaceful portrayal that is common in religious art, Lotto has depicted the event in a more dramatic and turbulent manner. In the painting, Mary is shown as being ruffled and bewildered, with her arms defensively folded around her as she looks up at the angel in shock.

The angel, on the other hand, has a peaceful and calming expression, trying to reassure Mary of her divine calling. The painting also features a terrified cat, which adds to the chaotic scene, as this was a common theme among Lotto’s paintings.

Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon:

The Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon is a painting created by Hans Asper in the 16th century. Asper was known for his ability to capture the elegance and wealth of his subjects, and this painting is no exception.

The painting depicts a wealthy young woman dressed in fine clothing and jewelry, indicating her status and wealth. Her expression is one of calm beauty, gazing off to the distance.

In the foreground of the painting, we see a bemused cat gazing up at her, hinting at a strong connection between the woman and the animal. Adding to this theme is the inclusion of a dog at the woman’s feet.

The dog is shown snarling, perhaps indicating its protective nature towards the woman. Overall, the painting is a testament to the beauty and wealth of Renaissance women, and their connection to animals as companions.


The Recanati Annunciation painting highlights the emotional depth of Lorenzo Lotto’s work, as well as the northern European art style’s emphasis on expressive motions. The painting’s depiction of a biblical scene in an unexpected way adds to its impact and relevance to modern viewers.

The Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon demonstrates the elegance and wealth of Renaissance women, as well as their relationship with animals. The inclusion of a bemused cat and a protective dog adds to the beauty and complexity of the painting, capturing the essence of the time and the social status of those depicted.

The Wedding at Cana:

The Wedding at Cana is a masterpiece painting created by Paolo Veronese in the late Renaissance Mannerist style. The painting is known for its compositional equilibrium, which is a feature that resonates with the work of other prominent artists of the time, such as Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and others.

The Wedding at Cana depicts a busy scene from the New Testament, where Jesus is seen overseeing a wedding feast and performing his first miracle, turning water into wine. The painting is full of characters that fill up the scene, creating a sense of lively chaos, which is characteristic of Veronese’s style.

One fascinating element of the painting is the inclusion of a cat playing among the people and their pets in the background. The cat playing is an example of Veronese’s preference for including animals in his works, as he believed that they added an element of vivacity and interest to his paintings.

A Visit to the Wet Nurse:

A Visit to the Wet Nurse is a painting created by Marten van Cleve that depicts a scene from child birth and celebration in the 16th century. The painting is a perfect example of Flemish genre painting, where artists capture scenes of everyday life.

In the painting, we can see a lady visiting a new mother, who is celebrating the birth of her child with a drink and food. The mother is seated in a large wooden chair, and a wet nurse holding the newborn is positioned next to her.

In the foreground of the painting, there is a playful cat sitting in the baby’s cradle, oblivious to the commotion around it. The presence of the cat in the cradle indicates that Cleve was aware of the disruptive nature of cats, and believed they could interject themselves into any situation.

Moreover, it adds a sense of calm to the scene, despite the chaos of the celebration. Overall, the painting is notable for its realistic depiction of everyday life, depicting the joy and turmoil associated with childbirth.

The inclusion of the cat adds a sense of relatability to the painting, reminding viewers of the intersection of daily life with nature and animals. Conclusion:

In conclusion, both The Wedding at Cana and A Visit to the Wet Nurse are examples of how painters used animals to add an element of interest to their works and depict everyday life.

While Veronese used the inclusion of a cat to capture a sense of vivacity and liveliness, Cleve utilized a cat to create a sense of calm amidst chaotic celebration of childbirth. Both works showcase how animals serve as an essential element of composition and add depth to the story that the painting is trying to tell.

The Artist Painting, Surrounded by his Family:

The Artist Painting, Surrounded by his Family is a notable work by Otto van Veen, a renowned designer, artist, and humanist of the Renaissance period. Van Veen was born in Brussels and later moved to Antwerp, where he flourished as a prominent artist.

The painting showcases van Veen at work, surrounded by his family. It provides a glimpse into the artist’s personal life and his devotion to his craft.

The composition of the painting is carefully structured to convey a sense of harmony and familial unity. However, the painting also features an interesting and somewhat unflattering portrayal of a cat.

While cats were often revered and depicted as mysterious and elegant creatures in Renaissance art, van Veen presents a different interpretation. In the painting, the cat is shown facing away from the viewer, as if uninterested or perhaps even disregarding the artist’s work and the family scene unfolding.

This unflattering portrayal of a cat challenges the conventional depiction of the animal as a symbol of grace and beauty. It highlights van Veen’s unique perspective and his willingness to push the boundaries of traditional artistic portrayals.

The Earl of Southampton:

The Earl of Southampton is a portrait painting created by John de Critz. The subject of the painting is believed to be Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was a prominent figure during the Elizabethan era and a potential inspiration for Shakespeare’s Sonnets Fair Youth.

The painting captures the regal and esteemed presence of the Earl, as he is depicted wearing lavish clothing and surrounded by luxurious furnishings. The attention to detail and the meticulous rendering of the Earl’s features demonstrate de Critz’s skill as a portraitist.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the painting is the inclusion of a cat, positioned near the Earl’s feet. The cat’s expression is both curious and slightly annoyed, adding an element of intrigue to the painting.

This portrayal of the cat suggests that the animal is not just a passive presence but has a unique personality and presence of its own. The cat’s presence adds a layer of complexity to the painting, inviting viewers to explore the relationship between the Earl and the animal.

It creates a sense of contrast and tension, as the regality and refinement of the Earl are juxtaposed with the independent and enigmatic nature of the cat. Conclusion:

The paintings The Artist Painting, Surrounded by his Family by Otto van Veen and The Earl of Southampton by John de Critz offer captivating insights into the artistic interpretations of cats in Renaissance art.

Van Veen’s portrayal challenges the conventional depiction of cats as elegant and graceful creatures, while de Critz’s inclusion of a cat adds depth and complexity to the portrayal of the Earl of Southampton. Both paintings showcase the artists’ unique perspectives and emphasize the significance of animals in enhancing the narrative and atmosphere of a composition.


Charity is a painting created by Joachim Wtewael, a Dutch painter renowned for his intricate works that often depict biblical and mythical themes. Wtewael’s artistic style was heavily influenced by Italian Mannerism, which is evident in his attention to detail and elaborate compositions.

The painting Charity showcases a woman engaged in the act of feeding children, embodying the charitable act from which the painting derives its name. The woman is depicted with a serene demeanour, emanating compassion and care as she nourishes those in need.

This scene of selflessness reinforces the importance of charity and empathy in society. An interesting element in the painting is the presence of a cat sneaking food from the table.

This detail adds a touch of playfulness and mischief to the composition. The cat, always opportunistic and resourceful, represents our innate nature to seek sustenance and survival.

By including the cat, Wtewael reminds viewers that even in acts of charity, there exists a shared struggle for sustenance and survival. The Prayer without End:

The Prayer without End is a painting created by Nicolaes Maes, a Dutch artist who was heavily influenced by his teacher Rembrandt.

Maes developed his own unique style, characterized by his skilled use of limited lighting to create dramatic effects and capture intimate moments. The painting depicts an elderly woman engrossed in prayer, displaying a deep sense of devotion and self-control.

The muted lighting accentuates the solemnity of the moment, drawing attention to the woman’s expression of profound spirituality. In this contemplative setting, a cat playfully interacts with a ball of yarn, seemingly oblivious to the woman’s prayer.

The cat’s presence adds a touch of realism and liveliness to the scene, contrasting with the woman’s meditative state. This juxtaposition reminds viewers of the interconnectedness of spiritual devotion and the everyday distractions and needs that coexist in our lives.

The cat’s playfulness and neediness also serve as a subtle reminder of the inherent tension between the worldly distractions and the pursuit of deep spiritual connection. While the woman seeks solace through prayer, the cat reminds us that we are often drawn towards playful diversions and material needs.

Maes skillfully captures this duality, inviting viewers to reflect on the intersection of self-control and the complexities of human desires. The cat’s presence in the painting adds depth and complexity, underscoring the transient nature of life and the constant negotiation between spirituality and worldly distractions.


In both Charity by Joachim Wtewael and The Prayer without End by Nicolaes Maes, the presence of a cat adds a layer of intricacy and symbolism to the compositions. Wtewael’s portrayal of a cat sneaking food highlights the innate struggle for survival even within acts of charity.

Maes, on the other hand, uses the presence of a playful cat to explore the tension between spiritual devotion and mundane distractions. These artists demonstrate their mastery in capturing the multi-dimensional nature of human experiences, reflecting the complexities of life through the inclusion of animals in their paintings.

A Cat Watching Rabbits and a Fowl:

A Cat Watching Rabbits and a Fowl is a painting by David de Coninck, an animal and still-life painter from Antwerp. De Coninck was known for his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to capture the essence of animals in his works.

The painting depicts a scene where a cat watches rabbits and a fowl. The cat is positioned in the foreground, its eyes fixed on the animals with a sense of intent focus.

De Coninck’s skill in depicting the cat’s stare conveys a sense of quiet observation and anticipation. The presence of the cat in the painting adds an element of tension and suspense.

It highlights the natural instincts of a feline predator and introduces a dynamic counterbalance to the otherwise passive experience represented by the rabbits and fowl. The cat’s gaze speaks to its innate nature as a skilled hunter, ready to pounce or strike with deadly precision.

In contrast, the rabbits and fowl represent a state of vulnerability. They are depicted calmly grazing or going about their business, seemingly unaware of the lurking danger presented by the watchful cat.

This dynamic creates a sense of unease and suspense, beckoning the viewer to ponder the delicate balance between predator and prey in the animal kingdom. De Coninck’s portrayal of the cat watching the rabbits and fowl invites us to contemplate the universal theme of power dynamics and the fragility of life.

The painting serves as a reminder that even in seemingly tranquil settings, danger and tension can exist just beneath the surface. Moreover, the inclusion of the cat in the painting showcases De Coninck’s understanding of feline behavior and his ability to capture the essence of cats.

Cats have long been subjects of fascination for artists, as they are enigmatic creatures with an air of mystery and independence. They possess an innate sense of knowing and observing, which De Coninck masterfully captures in this painting.

The cat’s presence also raises questions about the relationship between humans and animals. Its poised stance and keen gaze underline the unique ability of cats to transcend their domesticity and maintain a sense of self-reliance.

The cat becomes a symbol of independence and autonomy, captivating viewers with its enigmatic persona. In conclusion, A Cat Watching Rabbits and a Fowl by David de Coninck exemplifies his mastery in depicting animals and still-life subjects.

The painting’s depiction of a cat observing its potential prey introduces a sense of tension and vulnerability. De Coninck’s ability to capture the essence of the cat and its innate predatory instincts adds depth and intrigue to the composition, inviting viewers to contemplate the delicate balance between predator and prey in the natural world.

In this article, we explored the captivating world of cat paintings in medieval and Renaissance art. From the strange portrayals in medieval works to the intricate details in Renaissance masterpieces, these paintings shed light on the evolving perspectives of cats throughout history.

Artists such as Lorenzo Lotto, Hans Asper, and Joachim Wtewael showcased their skill in depicting cats, both as symbols of mystery and grace. We also discovered how cats added depth to the narratives, whether through their mischievous presence or their portrayal as independent creatures.

Through these paintings, we are reminded of the timeless allure and enigmatic nature of our feline companions, and the enduring fascination they hold in the realm of art.

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