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.


Commenting Guidelines

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.)