Categories: Cats in Art

Domestic cat teased by Christ’s suffering as symbolised by a goldfinch

It’d be interesting if someone could try and untangle the interpretation of this 16th century religious painting by Barocci containing a domestic cat. It is called ‘The Madonna of the Cat’ (La Madonna del Gatto).

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The Madonna of the Cat. The image should be copyright free due to the passage of time and if not I plead fair use for educational purposes.

You know there are no references to cats in the bible other than to the lion. It’s an omission from domestic life at the time because there were domestic cats at the time of Christ. At the time of Christ’s crucifixion domestic cats had been around for about 8,000 years.

The greatest Italian painter of his time, Federico Barocci, created an interesting painting around 1575 in which a domestic cat has been placed in a religious setting.

It is a lively family scene with the people representing various figures of the bible.

John the Baptist is represented by a young boy resting against his mother, the Virgin Mary who’s suckling Jesus (it seems to me). John holds a goldfinch in his raised right hand to tease the cat who is on his haunches looking intently at the captured bird.

The goldfinch represents the passion of Christ. The ‘passion’ means the suffering of Christ. The word ‘passion’ in this context comes from the Latin ‘passion’ to mean suffering and enduring. It covers the short period of time at the end of his life from his entrance into Jerusalem to his crucifixion.

The cat is a bicolor, solid ginger-and-white, cat companion. The colouring of the coat is typical of Mediterranean countries.

The Madonna of the Cat

Therefore, in the painting we have a domestic cat being teased by a bird representing the suffering of Christ. The National Gallery describes it thus:

“John the Baptist holds a goldfinch, a traditional symbol of Christ’s Passion, teasing the cat shown in the left foreground…”

I don’t know of any hidden meaning in that but it’s ironic that Barocci placed a cat in his religious painting when cats (other than a passing reference to the lion) were never referred to in the bible.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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