Art History Lab

Cats in Medieval Art: A Feline Legacy

Cats in Medieval Art History

Throughout history, cats have held a special place in human society. From their early days as hunters to their popularity as domesticated pets, cats have been a fixture in human culture for thousands of years.

During the Middle Ages, cats played many roles in European society, both in the secular and religious spheres. In this article, we will explore the different ways cats were depicted in Medieval art history and how they were viewed by people during that time.

Cats as Pets and Working Animals in Medieval Society

In the Middle Ages, cats were commonly kept as pets and working animals. Many people kept cats in their homes to control rodents, such as mice and rats, which were a common problem in Medieval cities and towns.

Cats became highly valued for their role in pest control, and they were even considered an essential part of household management. Cats were often depicted in Medieval art as working animals, portrayed as fierce hunters pouncing on mice or rats.

This was a testament to the cat’s usefulness as a vermin controller and its ability to keep the family’s food safe from pests.

Cats in Religious Texts and Symbolism

Cats held a special place in Medieval religious texts and symbolisms. They were often used to represent various religious values, such as faith, loyalty, and humility.

In Christian art, cats were depicted as symbols of the Devil or evil forces due to their association with witchcraft. For example, St. Jerome’s version of the Bible included a story of a lioness who nursed a lost kitten back to health, which was seen as a symbol of God’s mercy and grace.

Some monastic orders saw cats as representations of the Virgin Mary’s virtues, including motherhood, purity, and humility.

Top 10 Most Famous Medieval Paintings of Cats

Now, let’s take a closer look at the most famous Medieval paintings of cats.

Cat Paintings in Religious Manuscripts

One of the earliest and most famous depictions of cats in Medieval art is found in a religious manuscript. Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, was a sixth-century Pope who was known for his works in religious literature.

One of his manuscripts, known as the “Vivarium,” included illustrations of cats alongside other animals. The cats were depicted as agile and fierce hunters, pouncing on their prey with precision.

The Vivarium illustrations became the basis for many Medieval manuscripts and were widely copied throughout the Middle Ages.

Cat Paintings in Insular Manuscripts

The Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript from the early Medieval period, features several instances of cats. In one illustration, a cat is seen crouching at the feet of an angel.

The Book of Kells is notable for its use of bright, vivid colors, which were carefully produced from pigments extracted from plants and minerals. The bright reds and greens used in the Book of Kells gave the cat illustrations a lifelike quality, making them all the more striking.

Cat Paintings in Hebrew Books

Jewish scholars and artists in the Middle Ages also depicted cats in their works. For example, Halakhical works, a type of Jewish legal texts, often featured illustrations of cats.

Cats were sometimes portrayed as docile animals, and other times they were shown as fierce hunters. Jewish artists used a variety of colors in their cat illustrations, ranging from bold reds and yellows to more muted blues and greens.

Cat Paintings in French Texts

Le Roman de Renart, a popular French text from the Middle Ages, featured several instances of cats. In this story, Renart, a fox, tricks and outwits many animals, including a cat.

The cat is shown as a loyal servant of Renart, following him around and obeying his commands. The illustrations of the cat in Le Roman de Renart were simple and unadorned, emphasizing the cat’s essential role in the story’s plot.

Cat Paintings in Book of Hours Codex

The Book of Hours was a popular prayer book in the Middle Ages, featuring various religious scenes and illustrations. Some of these illustrations included cats, which were often shown alongside dogs.

These illustrations were intended to represent different aspects of the human experience, such as steadfastness (dog) and contemplation (cat). The cat and dog depictions in the Book of Hours were typically simple and unadorned, but they conveyed deep religious meaning.

Cat Paintings in Italian Tracts

Italian tracts and manuscripts from the Middle Ages also featured cat illustrations. The Herbal Codex, a book on medicinal plants and herbs, featured illustrations of cats hunting rodents.

These illustrations were meant to show the role of cats in protecting crops and controlling vermin. The cats in these illustrations were usually depicted as skillful hunters and fierce protectors.

Cat Paintings by Famous Renaissance Artists

During the Renaissance, cats continued to be a popular subject for artists. Albrecht Drer, a famous German Renaissance painter, produced several paintings of cats, including his famous “The Large Piece of Turf.” Other Renaissance artists, such as Lorenzo Lotto and Annibale Carracci, also included cats in their works.


Although cats have been popular throughout human history, their role in Medieval art history was particularly fascinating. From their use as working animals to their appearances in religious texts and popular literature, cats played an essential part in Medieval society.

The cat illustrations found in Medieval art provide a glimpse into the way people viewed these animals at that time. Today, cats remain a beloved and popular pet, and their place in art history serves as a testament to their long and storied history.

In conclusion, cats played a significant role in Medieval art history, appearing in religious manuscripts, popular literature, and herbals codex. Cats were valued for their roles as working animals and pets, serving as vermin controllers and beloved companions.

Medieval artists depicted cats in a variety of ways, from fierce hunters to symbols of religious virtues. The significance of cats in Medieval art history serves as a testament to their long and storied history, and their continued popularity today.

The beauty and skill of the Medieval artists who portrayed cats have left us with an enduring legacy that reminds us of our enduring connection to these remarkable animals.

Popular Posts