Saturday 12 September 2020

Aelwaer's cat

Aelwaer's cat is a cat held aloft by St Aelwaer. The cat is in her right hand and she is sitting on a donkey. She has tucked under her left arm a pig and on her head sits a bird. It is a bizarre image and it can be seen in a Dutch woodcut of 1550 by Cornelis Anthonisz. The picture obviously represents something but the question is what? I have different interpretations.

St Aelwaer and cat in her right hand. This image is in the public domain due to lapse of time

Sarah Hartwell on her website tells me that the woman is a joke patron saint of quarrels, rioters, troublemakers et cetera. She is a troublesome, gossiping and malicious busybody. Sitting on the donkey indicates her stubbornness. The bird on ahead is a magpie which symbolises scolding. In other words it symbolises the fact that she always wanted to be right and had a big mouth. The pig under her arm represents the injustices of her life. 

And now to the cat: the cat held aloft is not a symbol of evil or of being in league with the devil. The cat represents a catfight, a fierce quarrel because St Aelwaer is predisposed to such behavior. This cat is not a witch's familiar. Although cats were persecuted in the Middle Ages in their many hundreds of thousands this particular cat represents a quarrelsome person.

Set against that argument is perhaps a more conventional view as presented by Dr Desmond Morris in his book Cat World. He argues that the pig represents gluttony and the magpie symbolises immortality. The cat is meant to signify that the woman, St Aelwaer, is "in league with the devil". He also refers to the Middle Ages and the persecution of domestic and stray cats. It was a time when cats were persecuted as familiars of witches and they were seen as creatures of wickedness.

You take your pick. I have to say that I favour Sarah Hartwell's version. She is an expert on the strange and the weird of the cat world. She is also an expert on cat genetics. Although I greatly respect Dr Morris. Hartwell is a specialist cat person while Dr Morris is a zoologist.

My thanks to Sarah Hartwell for the info and the image.

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