I came over this thrilling little engraving some time ago. After some discussions around this picture I decided to make an image analysis of what we acctually see in this picture and what it represents:
We see a slightly depressed looking nun trying to bribe the housecat with a fish as an exchange for an extremely erected penis the cat is running around with. In the background we see an amused fool flaunting a pair of male underpants. The quote on the bottom reads “Flaisch macht Flaisch” which translates into either “flesh gives flesh” or “flesh equals flesh”. This depiction is found in the Rijkmuseum in Netherlands, artist unknown and with the description “Nun walks with fish in hand chasing a cat , she wants to trade the fish with a penis that the cat has in its mouth. A jester watches through a window frame”.
Obviously this is a humorous satire with a very naughty message: driven by her carnal desires the nun wants to get her hands on the erected penis and tries to bribe it from the cat. The quote “Flaisch macht Flaisch” can possible be connected to german wordgames: the word “fleisch” can be tied the german word “Fleischeslust”, with the same meaning as “desires of the flesh”, showing that the nun have sexual reasons for hunting the cats prey. Also the german word “Fleisch” could be a slang for, well, the penis. Simply put: the nun wants the bratwurst! But why does she use specifically a fish to bribe the cat? It could either be derived from the catolic medieval practice of eating fish on fridays. Or its simply a clever trick as fish is a wellknown favourite dish for felines.
But what does the engraving actually mean? Well, when looking at the date of production – 1555 – its quite clear. This is in the middle of the Reformation spreading over Europe. It is obvious that this is a protestant satire – a example of popular protestant criticism of catholic practices. These satires portrayed Catholics in celibacy (cleric, nuns and monks) as secular, perverted and driven by carnal desires. This derives from one of the key pillars of Protestantism: criticism of the celibacy. Protestants claimed that the catholic idea of celibacy was a fraud – celibacy instead resulted in corrupted perverts doing nothing but hunting sexual outlets. The protestant idea was instead that marital intercourse was God given and therefor natural. Celibacy on the other hand was an unnatural concept and not even supported by the bible! Making popular caricatures of Catholics like this woodcut was a weapon in the political war.
Back to the engraving – this is a caricature meant to show the viewer the catholic hypocricy. Lacking martital sexual outlet the nun is perversely obsessed with sex. All the vows of celibacy are soon forgotten as soon as a chance for “meat” is presented. Please also note the rosary the nun is wearing…. what do we see there, instead of a crucifix?
But why is the fool in the background? Often in medieval and early modern depictions the fool is a symbol for mockery, stupidity or someone being fooled. Maybe he is there to show us this is a satire. But why is he smugly wagging his underpants? Is it to show the nun that he is available for action if she doesn’t get a hold of the cats prey? Or is it perhaps to show us that it is the fools private parts the cat is running around with? This is all just up for guessing unfortunately… What do you think?