Over the summer I visited Washington DC with the main purpose to go on a museum crawl. DC is a borderline utopia since everything is so walkable and museum entrance fees are nonexistent. Within one day I went to the National Gallery of Art and the Renwick Gallery (along with all the DC tourist attractions). The size of some of the works in the National Gallery of Art were truly massive and overwhelming in the best ways. Every room is massive, chilly and packed full of art. In the event that you get too close to the art, a robotic voice goes off telling you to step back. It was one of the biggest galleries I’ve ever been in or maybe it just felt like a maze.
My favorite piece I saw that day was an interpretation of the fall of man, which was appropriately called The Fall of Man. It was made in 1616 by a man named Hendrick Goltzius. It was not unlike Goltzius to have work featuring the human form but this piece is unique because of the inclusion of a cat. Despite the narrative around the fall of man being about Adam and Eve, it is the intense stare from the cat that caught my attention. Here is a recreation of my reaction to the piece: Oh I think that’s Adam and Eve. Wait, what’s that little guy in the left corner? A cat? Who’s looking directly at me??
If I really wanted to analyze the piece and try to understand why the cat was there, I might argue that the cat was actually a representation of the snake that tricked Eve or maybe the Devil himself. Or I could dedicate the time to read up one someone’ else theories. However at that time I think I wanted to believe that Adam and Eve had a pet that was never documented. The cat looks out at the viewer, with these very human-like eyes and the longer you look, the more uncomfortable it gets.
At the time that I’m writing this, I realized that I don’t think the cat can be the serpent, because the serpent is present in the tree. A normal snake body with a human face?? The face is round, flushed, and extremely youthful. The coloring of the flesh can almost be mistaken for the surrounding fruit within the tree. The hair is golden and almost unruly. This snake body-human face watches from the background as Eve offers Adam the forbidden fruit in her hand.
While this piece is the most unsettling portrayal of The Fall of Man I’ve seen so far, it is also definitely my favorite. There’s something in the gaze of the cat that feels warning or judgemental. There’s something very sneaky about the way the brown in the cat blends back into the scenery and if it weren’t for the white patches of fur, the cat may have been overlooked completely.
I would highly recommend looking at the piece up close in person or online through Google Arts&Culture. I’m sure there’s even more unsettling details to be found all over the piece and I wish I knew Goltzius’ true motive.