Cattes and Sathan (I Mean, Cats and Satan)
I created "The Burning of Cattes" for a group show called Familiars at the Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach, Calfornia. Thanks go out to Jeremy Schott and Jeremy Cross for including me! This piece is still available for sale through the gallery:
Cats are yawn-inducingly common as witch's familiars, so I needed an original take on them. As I read article after article about cat-familiars, I ran across an account from the 17th century of a wicker sculpture of Pope Innocent XI being filled with cats and burned at Smithfield, a place of execution in London. The burning was part of a festival commemorating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. Back then it was believed that cat burning, like witch burning, helped diminish the presence of evil in a community.
I had seen images of wicker men used to sacrifice humans centuries ago. Below is a popular one:
I imagined that a wicker figure of a pope would have a medieval pope's miter and robes, and that (as suggested in the image above) a wooden mask would be easier to construct that a woven wicker face. Cats would be struggling to get out and climbing on top of each other, so I made sure to have paws and tails sticking out through the wicker and panicky cats' eyes visible. I also decided to add three ancient Christian symbols to the wicker: (1) a cross (of course); (2) the Ichthys fish, or "Jesus fish"; and (3) the chi rho ("XP") symbol, which is made up of the first two Greek letters of the word Christos and was used by Roman emperor Constantine on the helmets of his soldiers. In my artwork, you can see these symbols in the wicker if you look carefully. Below is a detail:
You can see the words "Scritch!" "Meawle!" "Helpe!" and "Crye!" in this detail as well. I decided I wanted the text in the artwork to resemble Early Modern English, which was the language of England during and soon after the time of Elizabeth I. The meanings of "Helpe!" and "Crye!" should be obvious. In Early Modern English works, I found screech spelled as "scritch" and meow spelled as "meawle." I also found several medieval drawings in which banner shapes were used as speech balloons.
I had to wing the language a bit, since I could not find a way to translate everything I wanted to say exactly as it would have been spoken in England 500 years ago; but I found some resources that helped me feel pretty confident. One was Daemonologie, a work by King James I of England, the successor of Elizabeth I and a believer in the existence of magic and witchcraft. One of his goals in writing this work was to facilitate accurate identification of witches and their demonic familiars.
Reviewing some of Shakespeare's writings helped me as well. I also consulted a 1604 English dictionary to check the spellings and meanings of words I considered using.
So the text I wrote for my artwork can be translated as follows:
On the frame: “The Burning of Cats as Servants of Satan / Cats are said to help witches in their service to the devil, and to feed upon the blood of said witches. When too many cats are burned over the years, rats do make copious offspring and carry the Black Death, which is suffered to spread.”
On the interior: "In remembrance of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, a wicker pope fashioned with devils at his ears, filled with live cats, was set afire at Smithfield. The cats screeched most horribly in pain as they felt the fire. Witnesses said the screeching was conference betwixt the pope and Satan."
To top things off, I depicted a weeping Queen Elizabeth kissing the poor cats as they burned. Elizabeth often wore a large, ornate heart-shaped collar, which I imagined being broken in half by cat-eared lace and pierced by flaming arrows with sacrificial cats tied to them.