Pino Blasone

The Cat and the Angel of the Annunciation

Beato Angelico, Cortona: Annunciation

Longing for a Paradise Lost For the little I could detect, the earliest figure of a cat in an Annunciation was depicted about in 1434 by Fra Angelico. Today we can discern it in the Diocesan Museum at Cortona, Italy, still sleeping crouched in the lower right corner of the picture. Of course, there is no mention of such a character in the biblical texts, canonical or apocryphal they might be. The nice detail is a mere artistic invention, yet it may be not completely devoid of meaning. Better to say, it is waiting for the sense we like to drop into it, what looks suitable to a pensive role of art. Actually, this work by the Angelico is rich in meaning. In it, not only we see an announcing angel and a Virgin Annunciate. In the background another angel, darkly clad and more similar to a Last Judgement one, is banishing Adam and Eve from the

Eden, in order to remind us that Mary is a “second Eve”. According to a Christian exegesis, she was called to contribute to our regeneration and redemption from the original sin. Then, we may suppose that symmetric cat represents what in nature is lacking in the consciousness of good and evil, which our conventional ancestors attained because of their fault. The homely pet does not mind what acted by the angel, for it never had that troubling conscience. Is there anything alike deep inside ourselves? If the answer is yes, or very probably, we have to deduce that sleeping cat is an image of our unconscious too, as well as the announcing angel might be the figure of an awakening consciousness. Mary’s privilege, and trouble, is that she must choose between a quiet unaware life and the conscious but even sorrowful one, more or less implicit in the angelic announcement. We may insinuate, the real unheimlich character is not the cat, as suggested by a medieval tradition regarding it as an almost devilish creature. On the contrary, he seems to be the archangel himself.

Federico Barocci; Perugia: St. Maria degli Angeli


Indeed, the figure of a woken cat will be not absent in some Annunciations and Madonna with Child or Holy Family, by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan C. Vermeyen, Rembrandt, Romano, Barocci… To be exact, in the Madonna of the Cat by Giulio Romano (circa 1520), the cats are a pair. One of them looks so curious of the viewer, that it might be suspected we are the real picture. But particularly a sleeping one will recur in a few other Annunciation paintings, as those by Federico Barocci (ca. 1596), Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1628), Anton Raphael Mengs (1779). More simply and generally, it may be interpreted as some inadequacy or resistance to accept the novelty of a perturbing or disconcerting message (what is the psychological sense of the Freudian term unheimlich). Such a worry was already transparent in the 12th century, in a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux, who does not omit to apologize for his theological daring. For his devotion to the Virgin, he has been called the “cithara of Mary”, yet these words sound directed rather to us than to her:
“You have heard, o Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that

it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, o Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent”.[1] Thus, not less than our wills, that of Mary was a free consent. And, no doubt, in our civilization she is the prominent mirrorimage of the psyche. A soul, in one sense, containing the world as well as contained by it. The angel and the cat of the Annunciation stand for the angelic and the animal side of our souls, by which each of us presumably not seldom is contended. But not necessarily this animal, and natural, side has a negative connotation. In the pictures by Leonardo and by Barocci, a kit will be even represented as a playfellow of the little Jesus. And the German mystic Meister Eckhart, in his sermon Missus est Gabriel angelus (XXIX), had written: “No animal exists but has somewhat in common with mankind in time”.


Anton R. Mengs; St. Petersburg, The Hermitage: Annunciation

Metamorphosis of the Angel Step by step, the Middle Ages were coming to an end. Bernard’s homily and the painting by the Angelico are faint presages of a changing perception of the time, from an ancient cyclic to a progressive one, after a messianic gestation. Its form is still mainly religious. In 1501 even Christopher Columbus, the renown initiator of the Modern Age, in his Libro de las profecias will use about the same terms of the Annunciation, to exalt his enterprise in reaching the “Indies” through the “Sea of Darkness” as the start of a new era. But the change is a trauma too. In the poem Annunciation by John Donne, Mary’s womb becomes like a “prison”, with an allusion to the incarnation and to the finitude of the human condition. However, only she bears the light in the dark of a little room. Not always the announcing angel is depicted as luminous, no more on a golden background so as in the Byzantine fashion. In the Annunciation by the Caravaggio (Nancy, Musée des Beaux Arts,

ca. 1608) the background of the scene is dark. We cannot see the entire face of the angel, for he keeps hidden most of it, as if sorry for his being a herald both of joy and of sorrow. Dark is the background of the two Virgin Annunciate by Antonello of Messina, today respectively in the Pinacotheca of Munich (1473) and in the National Museum at Palermo (ca. 1476), or of that one by Bernardo Cavallino (1650), currently in the National Gallery of Victoria at Melbourne. Peculiarly in this case, Mary looks terribly alone: more a Lady of Sorrows than an ecstatic Madonna. Incredibly beautiful though, she has nothing to envy to the better known Annunciate of Palermo by Antonello or even to Mona Lisa by Leonardo. So much, that we can imagine what made the picture travel from Naples to France and to Australia. Surely, it is worthy to figure as an icon of good wish for the young Australian identity. Not less than music, art is an universal language, even if it cannot be said exactly the same of iconography, depending in part upon local traditions. Anyway, in all these cases the bodiless angel is cut off from the view. We can just only infer his virtual presence out of the frame, at least because his gleam insists on pervading the darkness like shed by a hidden source. Probably, this is a price of the modernity itself, or of the kind of it we are used to.

Jan de Beer; Madrid, Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza: Annunciation

Someone might wonder where such a removed angel has gone. Certainly, his shadow

has returned into many further Annunciation renderings. But here we can report his last recorded words. In 1902 Rainer Maria Rilke issued the poem Annunciation: Words of the Angel. There, a too long silent Gabriel speaks to Mary again: “You are not nearer God than we;/ he’s far from everyone./ And yet your hands most wonderfully/ reveal his benison./ From woman’s sleeves none ever grew/ so ripe, so shimmeringly:/ I am the day, I am the dew;/ you, Lady, are the Tree./ Pardon, now my long journey’s done,/ I had forgot to say/ what he who sat as in the sun,/ grand in his gold array,/ told me to tell you, pensive one/ (space has bewildered me)./ I am the start of what’s begun;/ you, Lady, are the Tree”.[2] This time, the poet does not tell the reply. Yet now we better know Mary not only as pure and humble. She is also the “pensive one”, we may listen to in the Magnificat. Actually, cogitatio (“reflection”) is a state attributed to her mind in old popular comments on Luke’s Gospel, but more than a momentary mood it sounds as a congenial inclination of her soul. Nor can the angel be easily abolished. Like a deleted memory or repressed wish, that long distance traveller keeps returning in different forms. The most updated vision of him may be read in an apocalyptic passage from On the Concept of History by Walter Benjamin, an unlucky thinker of the 20th century. He refers to a watercolour by the contemporary artist Paul Klee: “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm”.[3]


Luca Giordano (?); Illingen, Germany, Statio Dominus Mundi: Annunciation

The Advent of the Other Now we may better discover a secret of the success of the Annunciation, in the history of art. As implicit in the act of announcing, it is expression of an anticipatory conscience, and of the hope in a better future. Unfortunately, often this “not yet, nor the same” consciousness did not correspond with a moral one, what could be expected from the holy premises and good intentions. Perhaps, it is also what a wild or domesticated nature is expecting from a superior, progressive civilization. In some representations we can bump into a woken cat, watching the scene like a surprised and a bit perplexed spectator. For instance, in a painting by the Garofalo (Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome; 1528), and in a marble relief by the Sansovino in the Sanctuary of Loreto, Italy (before 1527). There, the animal philosopher turns its muzzle back toward the event, like considering if and how a meeting between the human and the divine might concern its immanent sphere. Its attitude may be

justified too, for here the angels are more than one: nearly a crowd following the messenger of God, as in a famous analogous scene depicted by the Tintoretto in Venice. In the paintings by the Flemish artist Jan de Beer, living between the 15 th and the 16th century, the spectator of the Annunciation is a white cat, such as to reflect the immaculate nature of the soul and body of the Virgin. Indeed, it causes also an odd analogical effect with the white dove, symbolic of the Holy Ghost. Instead, in an Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto (Pinacotheca of Recanati, Italy; ca. 1527) a dark cat is springing aside, as frightened by the supernatural intrusion of the angel. Objectively, nature is present in different forms in not few renderings of the Annunciation: as a fenced or walled garden, as a landscape framed by a window, as an open and wide panorama. Dark or white it might be depicted, the cat is a peculiar form of subjectivity, almost a witness and participation by the nature itself in the holy event. It is a subjective representation of a natural level between the divine and the human one, not so wild as to be hostile, nor so tame as to be deprived of any autonomy. It is there to remind us that such a layer cannot work as a mere background. Less than ever in an aware modernity it can be forgotten, even for it is an outer as well as an inner reality.


Gianfrancesco Bembo (?), Isola Dovarese: Annunciation

We face a contradiction, that is part of a dialectic development, which even the art cannot evade. We ourselves cannot escape from it. The Virgin Annunciate of Palermo by Antonello of Messina is looking out of the picture. What does not seem to deal with the angel, but with us. That looks like a call for co-responsibility, as if we were not extraneous with her drama. In a similar way, in a painting ascribed to Gianfrancesco Bembo (Church of St. Nicolò, Isola Dovarese, Italy; first half of the 16 th century), we may admire a cat of the Annunciation looking out of its picture. In the background, a fire is burning in the hearth. Both gazes ask for a choice. We can ignore the mystery, going on with the everyday life. Like a sleepy self or a trivial detail in the world picture, we can choose indifference. Or we might give it a chance, trying to fulfil what each one believes he has been announced. After all, the kitty-cat is an allegory full of practical sense. Yet the moral one is another story, more complex and not covered from danger, included a risk of mistake or ambiguity. In several Annunciation pictures we may see an elderly man, appearing or leaning out of the sky, and a dove flying down from it. Of course, they are approximate allegories of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Holy Trinity is forthcoming in the figurative space of the Annunciation, but the Son is already present in the announcement by Gabriel (in this sense, Saint Catherine of Siena called Mary “Temple of the Trinity”). According to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in his Journals, here is a paradox of the existence. In one sense, the first painter of such a recurring depiction is God himself. Through the incarnation of Christ’s person, he is going to insert himself as the other, into the composition of his own creation. So, we cannot consider the nature entirely resolved without this event. Not less than history, and even before that, nature is a dialectic process between transcendence and immanence. The Annunciation is its turning and “crucial”, maybe recurrent, point. Peculiarly the genius of Renaissance art had clear such a vision.


Franz Pforr, Schweinfurt: Sulamith und Maria, detail

The latest painting in the history of art, where a cat is associated with the Virgin, likely is Sulamith und Maria (Schweinfurt, Germany: Georg Schäfer Museum). This singular diptych was painted in 1811 by the Romantic artist Franz Pforr, a young lover of the Renaissance art. On the left wing we can contemplate the Shulamite, a female character of the Old Testament. Her vitality contrasts with some melancholy of Mary, portrayed on the right. Alone with her pet, sitting in her chamber in front of a window, she is reading the Bible and plaiting her hair with her hands. Here the announcing angel is still to come. We cannot well know whether or when. We may just only trust it, or not. Nevertheless, the cat is looking toward the door, like awaiting an uncanny advent. At last nature and history, especially holy history, perceive one another. Our rationalism has dropped us out of such a state of grace. Our pragmatism prevents us from expecting any meaningful event, out of its range. Sometimes we can recover a deeper insight thanks to the art, at least for the while which might let our stories restart in a wider horizon, worth being named history again.

Copyright 2008 [1] De laudibus Virginis matris, IV 8: in Opera omnia, Editio Cisterciensis, Vol. 4, 1966. [2] Translated by James B. Leishman in Rilke: Poems, New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996. [3] Translated by Harry Zohn in Selected Writings, Vol. 4, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.


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