Jesus was not a bottle baby. What happened to Maria Lactans?
Speaking of Mary, as we were earlier, one of the mysteries of the modern Christmas is why Jesus is never seen suckling at the breast of the Virgin. “Maria Lactans” was a prominent feature in Marian iconography from the earliest centuries up through the Renaissance — not to mention an example of the Catholic imagination and an earlier culture’s different relationship to the body and its functions.
The illustration (via Wikipedia) of Mary squirting breast milk onto the eager lips of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (he was praying before a statue of Our Lady when the miracle reportedly happened) was, for instance, considered a holy image, whereas today it would likely provoke tittering, and frat boy puns.
For my Christmas-themed story for Religion News Service, I explore the disappearance of this image, in part relying on Margaret Miles, author of “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750.” Her book intrigued me since I read her in the Christian Century a few years back when the book was published. So what happened to “Maria Lactans”?
With the advent of movable type, historians say, came the ability to mass-market pornography, which promoted the sexualization of women’s bodies in the popular imagination. What’s more, the printing press enabled the wider circulation of anatomical drawings for medical purposes, which in turn contributed to the demystification of the body. Both undermined traditional views of the body as a reflection of the divine.
The other major consequence of this new technology, of course, was the mass-marketing of the Bible and the rise of a Protestantism that encouraged a focus on the text of the Scriptures and discouraged the use of images and “Catholic” practices like devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints.
The cultural shift was so great that even Catholics soon came to regard the breast as an “inappropriate” image for churches. Instead, the sacrifice of the cross – the suffering Jesus – became the dominant motif of Christianity while the Nativity was sanitized into a Hallmark card.
“Ask anybody in the street what’s the primary Christian symbol and they would say the crucifixion,” said Margaret Miles, author of “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750,” a book that traces the disappearance of the image of the breast-feeding Mary after the Renaissance.
“It was the takeover of the crucifixion as the major symbol of God’s love for humanity” that supplanted the breast-feeding icon, she said. And that was a decisive shift from the earliest days of Christianity when “the virgin’s nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity.”
Following on the Leo Steinberg work on Renaissance images depicting the genitals of the baby Jesus, I imagine there are some parallels in the disappearance of that motif. Realism in art emerged, but the crucifixion was a much more appealing subject.
In any event, there are some efforts by right and left, pro-lifers and social justice types, to resurrect Maria Lactans as a holy symbol to promote various aspects of Catholic teaching. But I have to think it’s impossible to “unsee” something as sexual and sensual, or to “re-consecrate” the breast — even the Virgin Mary’s.