Federico Barocchio, Cat-holic Painter

I’d never heard of this guy before, but he’s delightful!

Federico Barocci, aka Federigo Barocci, Federigo Baroccio, Federico Baroccio, and Il Baroccio, was an Italian painter of mostly religious scenes. He loved animals and families, so he depicted them a lot.

Some painters focused on negative Christian symbolism of cats as symbols of laziness, lust (as replacements for leopards), or even the Devil (as a replacement for lions). But he seems to have focused on cats as either as replacements for the Lion of Judah, their common presence in households as rat deterrents, or their association with Mary through a legend that a cat gave birth to kittens in the stable at the same time as Mary.

Here’s a cat in the lower left-hand corner of his Annunciation. It appears that the cat was assisting Mary’s prayer and Bible study by sleeping in its basket, so it misses out on seeing the angel. This may be a symbol of the Annunciation’s privacy and hiddenness from the world.

The National Gallery in the UK has a lively Holy Family scene by him, with Baby Jesus nursing on Mary as St. Joseph looks on, while the toddler St. John the Baptist teases a kitten with a Christological goldfinch (as Father Z calls this motif). This painting is sometimes called “La Madonna del Gatto”. I guess the symbolism here is that St. John the Baptist will die unjustly before Jesus does.

Here’s the Institution of the Eucharist with a Eucharistic dog! (Probably because “even the puppies eat the scraps thrown down by the children.” Another dog shows up in “Madonna del Popolo”, in the lower right corner, and there’s another in a Milan painting of St. Ambrose getting the Emperor Theodosius to do penance for killing a bunch of people. (The kids playing nearby shows that St. Ambrose was protecting his people.) This picture of the Deposition of Christ is a bit more sinister, as it’s the dogs from the psalm. Poor doggie doesn’t seem to mean it personally, though.

Here’s the Visitation, which has a nice donkey and some birds, but which also makes great stuff out of Mary showing up on St. Elizabeth and St. Zachariah’s doorstep. It really looks like somebody showing up unexpectedly.


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