A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


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 womens 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 whats 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 Gods 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 virgins nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of Gods 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.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Our Lady, breast feeding the Child, can be found at the Shrine of our Lady in SAint Augustine, Florida. She bears the title "de la leche y buen parto" - "of the milk and safe delivery."

The Spanish, and Latinos, have retained that devotion, as you can see at this Facebook site: was at the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem a decade ago, filming with CNN, and a colleague whose wife was having trouble getting pregnant scraped some of the chalky substance from the ceiling. Back home his wife mixed it with water, as per the instructions, and drank it, and had a baby a year later.

The Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit in 2011 called Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France. One of the objects it contained was a Reliquary of the Virgins Milk from sixteenth-century France, a lovely silver and bejeweled concoction built to hold the breast milk of the Blessed Virgin. It exhibited a very physical and intimate link to a very human yet also divine experience, the feeding of the Christ child by his mother. As my Protestant friend commented upon seeing it: You Catholics, you celebrate everything!

Very interesting, David. Thanks. I would point out that it's very possible to depict a nursing mother without actually depicting a naked breast (a lot of the squeamishness about moms BFing in public stems from an inaccurate sense of just how graphic the activity is, or so it seems to me). So I can imagine a contemporary devotional "Maria lactans" image that conformed to modern sensibilities -- and now that I'm imagining it, I'd kind of love to see one. But it still seems unlikely to actually be commissioned and created. Now that I think about it, you don't often see Mary actively "mothering" in any way in church art. It seems our preferred depiction of Madonna and child, especially in worship spaces, is a stiffly regal one, where the BVM is worshipping her baby, or offering the child for our adoration. Pre-Renaissance images of the nursing Virgin always fascinate me, and one of the things I often notice is that the artists seem...not so familiar with how female anatomy (and breast-feeding) really looks and works. I suppose they weren't working from live models.In my Last Word essay I mention a Madonna-and-Child painting by Gerard David, who has a way of depicting the mother/baby relationship that rings true for me. He also painted my current favorite Mary image, Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup, a cozy depiction of mothering that also manages to accomodate our modern discomfort with breastfeeding. (He painted a few versions, but that one is my favorite.)

Are there any images of Mary giving birth in the squatting position considered normal until male physicians took over childbirth in the 19th century? Are there any images of Mary giving birth attended by other women?Why are normal conception, childbirth, and lactation so distasteful to so many? Why must Mary be different from normal women? "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" --'enry 'iggins

Margaret Miles certainly paints with a broad brush. E.g., "the earliest days of Christianity" are those represented in the NT and the patristic period. Are there really enough artistic or literary references to the lactating Virgin to justify the claim that then the virgins nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of Gods love for humanity? I've read all of St. Augustine's sermons, for example, and I can't recall a single reference to Mary's breast. And wouldn't there have been a good number of centuries during which the image of the lactating Virgin and that of the Cross lived quite amiably, uncompetitively, alongside one another? Last May I was in Aosta, Italy, on what there, too, was Mother's Day. A friend and I were in a little restaurant when in came a family consisting of a great-grandmother, a grandmother, a husband and wife, a three-week old baby, and a large dog. They sat down at the table next to ours, and a few minutes after they were settled down, the young mother took out her milk-swollen breast and began to nurse her baby, doing so quite unselfconciously, entirely naturally, feeling no need to cover herself. She'd have made a beautiful Madonna and Child! I don't think the Italians have any difficulty with a lactating Virgin.

Also I must quibble with the notion that that notorious Time cover had anything to do with Madonna Lactans. It was designed to objectify and titillate, just as the headline was designed to provoke (neither had anything to do with the story inside). And the pose in the photograph was a more extravagantly unrealistic depiction of real-life breastfeeding than any Medieval painting I've seen.

Blood and breast milk were literally connected in antiquity (a major medical explanation was that breast milk, like other bodily fluids, was heated blood), and so it seems inevitable that milk would be a rich symbol used diversely in a tradition as blood-focused as Christianity. (So, for example, when Paul gets beheaded, milk and not blood comes gushing up). The image of Bernard nursing (sort of) from Mary reminded me of the Ribalta depiction of Francis nursing from the gash in Christ's side.

Mollie, I agree that the Time cover was obviously provocative, and intended to be so -- but that's also because of our views of such things, as well as the fact that they found a "hot" mom. But the editors explicitly said they were going back to such images, so it is what it is. And there is something to the almost challenging stare at the viewer, which is a feature of many of the early nursing images of Jesus. That said, I wouldn't want to associate the Time cover with Maria Lactans either. But how much of that is our modern discomfort?

As for the Italians, Id bet they are better with breastfeeding mothers than most Americans. On the other hand, they arent too good with them in St. Peters Basilica: do think Margaret Miles makes a strong case for the centraity of the nurturing Madonna to the Christian imagination the earliest representations of the crucifixion were the fifth century, I believe, and it was a triumphant, not a suffering Christ on the cross, as Kenneth Clark noted. The idea of the church as mother, of God as mother, seems to have been very potent and very often represented by the Virgin, and the breast-feeding Virgin in particular. In addition to Miles, others have made this argument:Sandra Miesel here: In a 2008 Letter from Rome, Elizabeth Lev cited historian Lucetta Scaraffia, a Vatican favorite, and others:

Several hundred years ago it was common to see works of art depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus at her naked breast. Images of Our Lady of the Milk seem to have originated in the fourth century and artists of the ensuing periods developed the theme. But the Enlightenment dnd the Protestant Reformation put an end to all that and we started making Our Lady more decent by shrouding her nudity. At least thats the explanation given by Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian historian who specialises in the field of women and religion. The 60-year-old professor and author spoke recently at the Lateran University where distinguished churchmen (like Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re and Archbishop Rino Fisichella) helped launch a two-volume book by Rome surgeon Tommaso Claudio Mineo on images of the Virgin Mary entitled The Sword and the Milk. Professor Scaraffia lamented that since the seventeenth century there have been very few depictions of the breastfeeding Madonna. As a result, she said, we have been robbed of Marian images showing the concreteness of motherly love and the giving of ones body to nourish another. So what happened? The Protestants criticisms of carnality even if they were theoretically rejected by the Catholic Church, had a determining effect on sacred art, Professor Scaraffia said. The effect, she said, was that weve ended up not only with a Virgin Mary that is less carnal but also one that is less full of love [and] less able to transmit that idea of total giving which touches the heart and faith of believers.

As Miles says, no one image for Gods love really suffices. So I would agree with her that restricting the image of Christianity to the Crucifixion is way too narrow.

BTW, one reference that didn't make my story was to the final scene from "Grapes of Wrath," when Rose of Sharon breast feeds the dying old man. It struck me powerfully -- and surely lodged in my late teens boy brain -- when I first read the book, and of course it was cut from the great 1940 film version. again, even Starbucks has been covering the breasts on its logo.

Also some tradition-minded folks argue that communicants should receive the Host on the tongue because of its roots in earliest Christianity:

Bishop Schneider said that just as a baby opens his mouth to receive nourishment from his mother, so should Catholics open their mouths to receive nourishment from Jesus."Christ truly nourishes us with his body and blood in holy Communion and, in the patristic era, it was compared to maternal breastfeeding," he said.

I believe the Time editors said that, but I think they're full of it. It's as if the HuffPo slide-show compilers claimed their "side-boob" exposes were meant to spark a discussion about the aesthetics of classical Grecian sculpture.I think our culture is skittish about breast-feeding because bottle-feeding so quickly and overwhemingly became the "normal" way to feed babies. A couple generations grew up with that assumption, and so now they see a mother nursing in church (or a department store or whatever) and think, "Well that's not necessary" -- which they wouldn't if she were feeding the baby a bottle. We know babies gotta eat. We're just used to thinking that the breast is not a normal way for them to do so. I think people will stop thinking of breastfeeding as exhibitionism as it gets more common again. But it would take more than that to put images of Mary doing normal mommy-things in our churches.

David: Of course, we need many and varied symbols. I'm just questioning Miles's sweeping historical statements, particularly the one about the dominant image in the first centuries being the Virgin nursing her Son.

See for a discussion on breast feeding in our culture.

Type "Maria lactans" into Google, and hit "images" and you'll find a host of them.

And the theme of the nurturing mother goes back before the Nativity to the prophets. From the traditional antiphon for "Laetare" Sunday in Lent: "Rejoice, Jerusalem! May you be filled from the breasts of your consolation."

I don't think breastfeeding elicits the same shock and outrage it used to. Twenty years ago, my workplace had a room for pumping breast milk. Women routinely talked about nursing in the cafeteria, and rinsed their pumps in the common kitchen area. It didn't create any stir that I could see. And the norm when my friends were having their babies 40+ years ago was to nurse. I'm sure nursing women get "comments," but what new mother doesn't get unwarranted advice and comments about something from know-it-all strangers and mothers-in-law? Seeing some type of anti-breast feeding conspiracy in a perceived suppression of Maria Lactans images seems like a stretch to me. And, of course frat boys would make jokes about those pictures now. If Chaucer's stories are any indication of the kind of jokes that were told nearly 1,000 years ago, I bet college boys like Hendy Nicholas made jokes about them then.

And not just breastfeeding, but extended breastfeeding: the Golden Legend says Mary was weaned when she was three.

Agree with Joe K. David, neither theology nor history agrees with you. The Crucifixion is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. The cult of Mary, absent as Joe shows in Augustine, has admittedly gotten out of control. The self consciousness about breast feeding has more to do with a puritanical Protestantism than the crucifixion. Origin complains that all the people cared about is Christ Crucified while they ignored his intellectual ruminations. And Paul is quite clear about the centrality of the crucifixion. When I was a child it was fairly common to see a mother breast feeding on the bus and other places. Miles shows that a little knowledge is dangerous.

Bill M, again, I think she makes a good case, as do the other experts. I think it would be good to read her extended treatment, and those of art historians. Theology may not agree that the maternal image is a central one to illustrate God's love, much less the breast-feeding Virgin (though I think it is a legit one theologically) but I think it is indisputable from the evidence that this was very important to Christian history and culture. Do you think all these images and references from across the centuries were incidental? I must confess I love how these images and even a discussion of the female body makes everyone so hinky. I guess we are all Puritans now -- alas. But again, the world has changed, the culture has changed, and it's so hard to see through the eyes of a past age. Femininity and the divine are so charged with agendas and sexuality that even the BVM gets sidelined sometimes.

David, the fact that things exist in Christian history does not make them correct--as important as some may deem them. At one time you could be guillotine by just criticizing a priest or a bishop. Up to the last century some considered it a sin to merely criticize the clergy. Mary is depicted as never suffering and in blue which is not real to the way she lived. (In fact the attribution of blue to boyinfants was not instituted until the 1940's) Infallibility was unheard of until the 12th century and mostly denied in our time. Mary was virtually absent in the first three centuries of Christian history. Christian history is mixed with a lot of superstition. So one has to distinguish.

Bill, as has been stated (and as is very well established in art history), the crucifixion is largely absent from early Christian art. And Father K did not say that "the cult of Mary" is absent from Augustine, he said that the connotations of the breast currently under discussion were absent (not so sure that "It's not in Augustine" is the surest methodological process, but that's not the point).

For those who know more than I do about such things, is there an analogy between Maria Lactans and the pelican, as symbol of the Church, piercing her breast till blood flows, in order to feed her young? (or to revive them from death, according to one version). Or Jesus, as the Pie Pellicane?see for lots of such images.In 1999, a nursing mother invaded the sacred precincts of the very British, very traditional, and very proper Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, and was promptly evicted. She returned a few days later, bringing with her a delegation of other such mothers, who promptly seated themselves in the marble halls of said hostelry and went about their maternal business, leaving the staff powerless to intervene. just a few years ago, an airline here in the US grounded a mother who was nursing her baby, though I believe it later apologized.

The frontispiece of a Coptic manuscript from 897 currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York: documentation for the complete manuscript:

Interesting that David Gibson above features the "illustration" of Maria Lactans "nursing" Bernard de Clairvaux. As there depicted, Mary seems to be quite "college spring-week diva."Bernard, a Cistercian abbot, who preached the Second Crusade, was an accomplished papal medieval political operative, also had strong associations with the Templar Knights - he is credited by some historians as being the main inspiration for the monastic culture and religious discipline among Templars. Rumors and speculation still persists today that Templars had strange cultic ceremonies of blatantly and overtly sexual in nature. At the time of their bloody eradication through the combined plotting of King Philip Le Belle and Pope Clement V on 13 April 1307 - the original unlucky "Friday the Thirteenth," the Templars were accused of practicing ritual sexuality and being "sodomites." Most Templars in Europe were tortured brutally then executed. Much of Templar lore and culture remains 'shrouded' in mystery. Given the Templars and Bernard de Clairvaux sordid history, this illustration above, while it must be viewed within the cultural norms of its times for attitudes regarding breast feeding and body functions, it is also obviously sexual in nature - and rather ribald at that. Could the illustration above of the Virgin sharing her "mother's milk" with Bernard be an example of medieval/Templar soft core "porn???"

David, thanks for this post. I can't find an image of it online, but there is a page in the book Silent Night, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, that depicts Mary nursing Jesus, surrounded by angels, animals, and Joseph, I think.

Sorry, but it just occurred to me: Doesn't this give us some new insights into the Holy Grail legends which are so associated with Templars? Maybe the Templars believed that the Madonna was the vessel or holy grail that was the repository of Jesus' royal bloodline?

Let us remember that we live in the Milky Way Galaxy. The English nomenclature is redundant, of course, because "galaxia" means "milky." Little Heracles was such a mighty nurser that Hera's milk splattered across the night sky.

Jim Jenkins, re: your various questions concerning the Templars, my response would be (and I apologize for the length):Nope.

My difficulty is not with the representation of the Maria lactans; I love the image and wish it had not gone out of ecclesiastical fashion. My point is that I don't see the evidence that it was "the primary symbol of Gods love for humanity" at any time, much less in the earliest centuries. How many of the many images you can find under that title in Google date from the first Christian millennium? Suckling images are found in that millennium, certainly, but they're more likely to be used as maternal images, not of Mary toward her Son, but of God, Christ, or an Apostle toward the Church. Cyril of Alexandria, interpreting the passage to which Paul Schlachter referred us--"that you may nurse and be satisfied from the breast of her consolation"--, said: "Using the figure of a woman, he compares the consolation of the Holy Spirit to her breasts and milk. The Song of Songs uses similar language: 'Your breasts are better than wine.'" St. Paul said he was like a nursing-mother to the Thessalonians and said that he could only give milk not solid food to the Corinthians, while St. Peter urged us to be as eager as newborn babies for spiritual milk. Two passages from St. Augustine: Commenting on Ps 30[31]:4, "and you will nourish me":

"He who has promised us the food of heaven has nourished us here below with milk, in his motherly mercy. A nursing mother causes the food which her child is not yet capable of eating to pass through her own flesh, and pours it out again as milk: the baby gets the same food he would have received at table, but because it has passed through her flesh it is suitable for a young child. So too the Lord put on flesh and came to us, to make his wisdom palatable for us milk. The body of Christ speaks here: "You will nourish me."

If Christ had not been humble, he could not have been eaten and drunk. Contemplate his lofty dignity: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That is eternal food. The angels eat it; the celestial powers eat it; the blessed spirits eat it, and in eating it they are totally satisfied, yet this food that fills them and gives them joy remains undiminished. What human being could aspire to that food? Where could a human heart be found fit to eat food like that?It was necessary for that banquet to be converted into milk if it was to become available to little ones. But how does food become milk? How can food be turned into milk, except by being passed through flesh? This is what a mother does. What the mother eats the baby eats too, but since the baby is unable to digest bread, the mother turns the bread into her own flesh, and through the humility of the breast and its supply of milk she feeds her baby with the same bread. How then does the Wisdom of God feed us with that bread from above? "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." Think of the humility of it: humans have eaten the bread of angels, as Scripture says....

The theme of the nursing mother is certainly not absent, then, in early centuries, but at least in these biblical and patristic passages, Mary's nursing of Christ is not the exemplar of God's tender care and nourishing of his children. The imagery is more christological than marian.

Abe Rosenzweig ... Let me be equally succinct: Obtuse!

I agree with Faher K, but would want to look at how Miles actually supports her claim (because it comes out of left field). It seems to me that attributing such a major role to the image of the lactating Mary distracts from what is actually more readily verifiable and interesting in its own right.It's worth remembering that the pool of evidence for what Christians believed or did or whatever just isn't large for the ante-Nicene period just isn't that large. So it can be tough to say things with much definitiveness--but that just means that such a big claim is kind of shocking.

Oh, shit, Jim Jenkins, were you just trolling? Everybody here is so freaking earnest that I always miss it when somebody does that.

"Why must Mary be different from normal women?" Colm Toibin's "The Testament of Mary" makes a case for the fact that she was VERY normal.

Examples of Mary nursing and of visible genitalia for baby Jesus [demonstrating his being true God and true man?] have been cited.I am interested in why Jesus who was "stripped of his garments" is never show truly naked on a crucifix. Or am I just unaware of some earlier practice? I understand that using a crucifix rather than a cross is a rather late Christian practice. Is it also associated with Bernard of Clairvaux?

That picture suddenly brought back to my mind the long-gone sound, in the farm stable, of cow milk being squirted into a bucket by my grandfather's expert hands.

The classic work on Mary, imho, is Truly Our Sister by Elizabeth Johnson. It debunks much of the contrived culture and shows Mary as one of us as she should be. EJ took the title from Paul VI who said that Mary is Truly Our Sister.

Well, then, if she's just like us, there's always the vision of her hanging out the laundry; type "Polish Madonna" into Google. If I were prime minister of Poland, I might sue for slander.

The Good Shepherd is the earliest image of Christ's love for humanity. Breast feeding doesn't have any place at all in paleo-Christian art, so far as I know. David, is it a misreading of Miles to say in "earliest days of Christianity" since the period under consideration in her book begins in the 14 C? Does Miles give any evidence that's earlier than, say 500 CE?

@Rita - This is the 10th paragraph of David's article; it follows immediately after the blockquote of the article he gives in his blog piece:

In fact, the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary is from a third-century fresco in a Roman catacomb that shows the infant Jesus suckling at her exposed breast.

I'm guessing that this image from the Catacomb of Priscilla is the one referred to. I haven't seen Miles' book myself, but I'd be surprised if she didn't give at least a brief account of the time before her period of focus, since that'd be pretty typical for an academic work.

Fascinating discussion and one of the few times I think David and I agree on something. I think that the loss of the devotion to Maria Lactans represents a significant blow to both Catholic spirituality and anthropology.I would suggest two things need to be done. First, the Theology of the Body is a terrific antidote to the fear of the body that permeates both Janensitic strains in Catholicsm and hedonistic secularism. It's the best lens for recapturing the "donative meaning of the body" that is profoundly represented by the breastfeeding relationship.Second, I might suggest that more Catholics need to discover attachment parenting--or what I like to call self-donative parenting. The best catechism in the donative meaning of the body is a personal experience of embodied parenting. Allowing parents and children to experience, first-hand, the donative meaning of the body through extended nursing, babywearing, bed sharing and other self-donative parenting practices is the best way to take away the culture's power for inappropriately reducing the body to a sexual fetish. I apologize for plugging my own work, but for those interested in more on this topic, I would invite you to check out, Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents' Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids (2nd.ed.) with foreword by Dr. Bill and Martha Sears as well as Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids (with Foreword by Archbishop Joseph Naumann). They are as much practical, developmental guides to parenting as they are a reflection on what a "Catholic theology of parenting" would look like in light of developments in the Theology of the Body, attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology. Despite our differences, David, considering this post, you might find much to recommend in them.

Nothing will bring peace and unity to the American Catholic Church faster than a discussion about attachment parenting.

I'm just checking back in, thanks for all the comments. A few responses:Rita, yes, as Wiliam Logan pointed out, that image of Mary breastfeeding Jesus is from the third century (the Roman catacombs) and is reportedly the earliest known image of Mary. Miles does treat the earlier attachment (so to speak) to this image, but her book focuses on the story of how that image disappeared, which was also my focus. As for which image was dominant or more important or whatever, I'd suggest folks read her book and those of the other art experts and historians who cite a lot of evidence for the importance of Maria Lactans. It is hard to provide all the evidence from scholarly works here, but Miles had a 2008 Christian Century article summarizing her thesis. Here's a link but you need to be a CC subscriber to access it all: Here are also two articles on the Tommaso Claudio Mineo's two-volume work, The Sword and Milk. I have only read about it, but it seems like it should be part of any judgments on the thesis. The Good Shepherd is such a powerful and moving image, to be sure. Also one of the earliest, no? I don't see how it conflicts with the nursing Mary, though it surely doesn't offend modern sensibilities about the body. Another very early image of Jesus was as an Apoolo-like god, Sol Invictus, discovered in the Vatican necropolis. That seemed to be less appealing, but Micehlangelo did resurrect the Apollonian connection for the Last Judgment. Bill Mazzella, I'm not sure that the nursing Mary is right or wrong or good or bad theology. I'm not sure it's theology at all, beyond being a potent symbol of God's love and Jesus' humanity, and the maternal care of the Church -- something that seems unobjectionable and widespread. There are so many images of the church. I find the maternal ones very comforting. More of it, I say. So I just don't see the problem theologically. "Lex orandi, lex credendi"? Tom: Re male front nudity and the crucifixion -- I suspect male genitalia have always been seen as erotic and sexual, and Christians were not pagans who celebrated that sort of use of the body. The genitalia of the baby Jesus and in particular the breast-feeding by Mary were specifically not about eroticism but about something sacred, and pointed toward that rather than distracting from it. That raises another point that seems to me a misdirection -- that Maria Lactans is all about making Mary more "human" and realistic, like Tobin's book. His work seems interesting, and it is good to place Mary in her time and context and see her as a "real" person, as Beth Johnson does. But the breast-feeding Virgin is, it seems to me, about a sacred image, pointing to divine love through the holy action of the body. That is the confounding thing for modern sensibilities, and the heart of this story -- that we just can't see Mary breast-feeding without seeing her breasts as moderns do. It is about our view of the holy, and miracles, and all that. Hence many of the reactions. In short, it's not so much what we think about breast-feeding in public -- it's what we think about God's actions in the world. Greg Popcak: Yes, we agree -- a Christmas miracle! But the reaction to this story has been strong if uneven and unpredictable. A NewsBusters writer saw the story as more evidence of liberal news media bias -- the exact opposite, I think, of what the story says: it goes. Alas, I will not wade into parenting advice -- and we were more Ferberizers than attachment types, so I'm a heretic on that score. The Christmas comity only goes so far...

I have read the basic bibliography on early Christian art, and have taught the subject, as well. I think that the basic objection that's being raised concerning the quote from Miles is pretty simple: there just isn't much artwork that supports her claim that the nursing imagery was all that important. I can't access her Christian Century article at the moment, but I am most definitely interested in what evidence she may be able to produce. I wonder if it isn't just that she reached too far in her quote? If she wants to argue that from the medieval period into the early modern period, the nursing imagery is key, she can probably have a good go at it; but the early period? I just don't see what she'd go on.

In the above, I mean, of course, all that important in the first several centuries of Christian art.

Ok, I was wrong--I could access the article. She says that the origins of the imagery are hazy, but that it's not until the late medieval period that it takes off. Obviously, it's just the "from the earliest days" part of her quote that is what's really bugging me.

Abe, you could well be right about her overreach in that quote, and the challenges of course of a news article conveying complex scholarship. I don't know how lapidary she is abou the dominance (or not) of Maria Lactans. She seems quite reasonably (to my mind) focused on the importance of the image but the importance of many images. She does argue that the lactating Virgin was an important image from early on, but especially in plague-ravaged Tuscany from the mid-14th-century on. Her book (and article) is about the disappearance of that motif, and her probably more provocative thesis is about the uses and abuses of the Crucifixion image. That's another discussion, an interesting one, but I have no chops for it. Feel free to pursue it after digesting her material. One quote from her CC article that I thought interesting:

"The secularization of the breast in early modern Western Europe began a long process in which Christianity came to be seen increasingly as focused on beliefs and doctrines, while bodies and physical practices were marginalized. Both images of the crucifixion and images of the lactating Virgin visualize bodies as capable of communicating Christianity's central message--God's love for humanity. It may well be that both images are needed."

Oh, make no mistake, I think that the topic is extremely worthwhile, and I especially think that the cultural function of nursing/breast milk imagery in late antiquity should be further explored--it really was only the claim about the early predominance of the imagery that I found problematic.

I wonder what other motifs and images came and went? The Christ-as-Apollo idea never gained traction. I am always struck by the poor stepchild of the Trinity in Catholicism, the Holy Spirit. With the exception of the Second Vatican Council, which seemed like sort of a new Pentecost (and we are busy bottling up that dangerous Spirit as I write!), the Holy Spirit seems to get short shrift. I've always wondered if in part that was due to the problem of portraying it visually. Wind, ya know, is tough. And there are only so many interesting things you can do with a dove.

Abe @ 11:00 am, thank you, that's what I was getting at. David @ 10:32, that's my point, the Good Shepherd is the earliest. Conflict? You can't have two "earliest" images of divine love. One is either earlier than the other or they are of the same age. :) I see from your later quote @ 11:11 that Miles's interest is centered on the human body as medium of dispensing divine love. Completely different question. Now I get it.

But is Mary's milk divine? Is it salvific? Maybe this is over-reach even within a narrower scope.

@Abe Rosenzweig 12/12/2012 9:37 amHa! Most definitely!

I could reply at length to many of the comments. In fact, I did reply at length - in my book! One thing that needs to be clarified is that I did not claim that the image of the nursing BVM was the "earliest" image of God's love for humanity. It existed in the early centuries of the common era, but I don't claim that it was a popular and frequent image until the late medieval/early modern period. Nor do I claim that it should be the ONLY (Christian) image of God's love for humanity. I am, however, attracted to its theology, namely that God's love is best represented by nourishment, the gift of life, loving care, etc. This visual statement is needed (at least) to balance the theology of the crucifixion image, i. e. that God's love is best represented by sacrifice.Also, my careful historical/cultural setting (in the book) of the disappearance of the nursing BVM image endeavors to reconstruct what art historian Michael Baxandall called the "period eye." We cannot, engaging our own "period eye" readily interpret the images of quite another period eye.Anyone who doubts the prevalence of images of the nursing BVM should go to the website of Art Resource and type in "nursing Madonna." I suspect (but do not claim!) that many more of such images existed before the Council of Trent banned "inappropriate" images from churches.Again, the "period eye" must be reconstructed before one can say what is "inappropriate" for a particular time/place. The question is, what cultural/religious changes made these images inappropriate when they had not been so earlier?

Thanks for your comments and clarifications, Dr. Miles. Most interesting!

"Trolling!" Now, that's funny. And, thank you so much, Abe, for demonstrating for all of us the very narrow, confining boundaries of your expertise.

One point I forgto, re Nicholas Clifford and the pelican symbol -- the New Orleans Hornets are reportedly going to change their name (thank goodness) to the Pelicans. The Christian symbolism has been much discussed on various blogs: Olivier bait.

David G. --Yes, looks like the team will be re-named the Pelicans, no doubt after the state bird. But I don't think it's a very good name for a team. Pelicans are very easy-going, unless you're a fish -- then they'll gobble you up. But they are an awesome animal, much, much bigger than swans, but really ugly. They're so stong -- they dive right down into the water to catch their prey. I love to watch these huge creatures fly. Powerful birds. Let's hope the team flies too.

Thank you for your comments, David. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.Just as a point of clarification, despite appearances, I wasn't really giving parenting advice. Research in in the field of ethnopediatrics (how parenting styles/methods affects culture and worldviews) shows that parenting styles wield a profound and seriously underappreciated power over our values, cultural perspective, and anthropology.As you know, people tend to intellectually search for information that confirms their emotionally-rooted biases (or, live in emotional reaction-formation to those earlier biases). It is parenting styles that establish those emotional biases that we then set out to confirm once we're capable of formal operational thought. Likewise, its parenting style that communicates a family culture's (and ultimately the general culture's) attitude toward the self and others--and especially attitudes toward one's body.The point is, that if we really want Catholics to have a healthier and holier view of the body (without lapsing into Jansenism or hedonism) we need to do something different to reset those emotional biases people bring to images like Maria Lactans. If a person's gut-level experience of those images is disgust, or lust, or some other form of discomfort, it is going to be very hard for that person to rewire those reactions just by intellectually gathering more information. And even if they try, the natural thing that will happen is a reaction-formation which is probably just as unhealthy as the original emotional response.Only by challenging the bias against the body at the root can we hope to regain an authentic Catholic sense of the body. Seen in this light, parenting style isn't just about controlling behavior. It's really the most important catechetical program you will employ with your kids, and ultimately, the most intimate yet powerful way you can impact the values the culture around you exhibits.

Frankly, I think one of the best things Catholic parishes could do for new parents-to-be would be to offer them "god-grandparents" who are old hands in the art of parenting and can offer encouragement rather than the usual criticism and judgment parents often get from the Church Ladies and CCD teachers about how their kids behaved in Mass that day. Such grandparents might also get to know the kids and offer suggestions about how they could participate in the life of the parish from a young age. I bless the music director who found a place for my kid during his Confirmation preparation, and sent him Christmas cards expressing appreciation for his contributions. What a blessing such people are!

And from today's RNS: Did Isaiah really predict the Virgin birth?

"If a persons gut-level experience of those images is disgust, or lust, or some other form of discomfort..."Gregory, discomfort covers a lot of territory. What about modesty or privacy? Or a place for everything and not everything we do that's healthy need be lifted up for public admiration? I have no quarrel with natural processes, but is it "sick" or "mean" or "disordered" not to want to see all bodily functions displayed in public? I don't think we should be censorious about people who are not "comfortable" watching everything pertaining to infant feeding and diaper changing and the rest, and deem them misanthropes.

If I think about kittens nursing and siblings fighting for the mother cat's nipples, I have to wonder: why is the child Jesus looking so serene when his mother is giving to someone else what is rightfully his?

BTW, sent from a friend: St. Ita's Vision"I will take nothing from my Lord," said she,"unless He gives me His Son from Heaven In the form of a Baby that I may nurse Him". So that Christ came down to her in the form of a Baby and then she said: "Infant Jesus, at my breast,Nothing in this world is true Save, O tiny nursling, You.Infant Jesus at my breast,By my heart every night,You I nurse are not a churlBut were begot on Mary the Jewess By Heavens light.Infant Jesus at my breast,What King is there but You who could Give everlasting good?Wherefore I give my food.Sing to Him, maidens, sing your best!There is none that has such rightTo your song as Heavens KingWho every nightIs Infant Jesus at my breast."

Jesus was not sentimental about his mother's breasts. When "a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to him, Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck," he responded, "Yeah, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it."(I guess it's another one of those things from the gospels that it's okay to ignore, like Call no man father, and Do not multiply words like the gentiles do, and When you pray go into your closet.)

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment