According to medieval lore, cats got their name because catus, in Greek, means cunning (footnote). What the stories were referring to, of course, is the house cat’s amazing hunting ability. Fittingly, another ancient word for cat, musio, means “mouser.” Very few of the cats we keep at home today have hunting as their primary occupation, but I have to wonder how often they dream about the chase while they’re lounging around in sunny patches on the backs of couches across North America.
The pictures that accompany medieval cat stories often depict house cats on the hunt or having successfully caught their prey. One of my favourite manuscript images of cats is this one from MS Bodley 764.
The moon and star pattern in the background shows us that it is night. While one grey cat is snuggled up by a fire on the left, two others are out on the prowl. The grey cat standing upright in the foreground is being extremely helpful by catching a big black mouse before it has a chance to nibble the rounds of bread on the table in the right corner. The black cat behind her, on the other hand, is using the same kind of cunning to get into some mischief. One of the trouble-maker’s eyes looks right at us defiantly as she sneaks her hand into the bird cage.
Looking at this painting another way, I wonder if what it depicts is not three cats but one moving through time. In other words, maybe what we aren’t seeing a good cat, a bad cat, and a sleeping cat, but the same tricky beast at different times during an evening. Is the naughty cat truly black, or just lurking in the shadows? I don’t know what the artist intended but it is true that sometimes our most admirable character traits, like cunning, are what end up getting us into the most trouble!
Now let's take a look at a contemporary portrayal of a cunning cat.
|Scatcat by Linda Kemp - acrylic on panel, 8" x 6"|
When I look at this contemporary painting of a cat at night by Linda Kemp, I see some of the same themes coming through. The primary difference here is that instead of showing the cat’s cunning and love of the hunt through detailed props and narrative, the piercing green eye does most of the work. The strong forward movement of the cat, whose forepaws look like they are coming off of the ground, suggests action and speed. The way that piercing green eye focuses forward makes me think that she is full of determination. Her small size is not going to stop her!
When I look at this painting, I imagine that this little orange and brown cat has spent an entire day being good. She’s purred and cuddled and kept her claws to herself, only to be fed dried kibble by well-meaning humans at supper time. But tonight, in the dark mist, things are different. Her eyes just glow as she moves from the lighter space on the right to the dark trees in the bottom left. To me, this painting captures the latent wildness that we love about cats—and that could perhaps come out in any of us if we’ve been good for too long.
See more writing by Dr. Jamie Kemp at