The Madonna Lactans Abstracted, Explicated, and Implied
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the vast majority of Medieval works currently on display depict Christian themes. Of these works, perhaps the most well-represented scene is that of the Virgin and Child. The sheer abundance of paintings, tapestries, and sculptures portraying the Virgin and Child scene perhaps conceals the complexity and diversity of ideas each work represents. While nearly every Virgin and Child portrays some intimate touch-- Christ often touching his mother’s face or chest, or clinging to her dress-- only a handful of the Metropolitan’s works depict Mary breastfeeding the infant Christ: the Madonna lactans motif. Three of these works are of particular interest: the German Virgin and Child with Cradle, ca. 1350-1400 (Figure 1), the South Netherlandish or French Virgin and Child, ca. 1400-1420 (Figure 2), and the North Netherlandish Virgin and Child, mid-15th century (Figure 3). Among other stylistic variations, each of these statuettes’ artists had rendered the single breast of the Virgin in entirely different ways, respectively abstraction, explication, and implication. The various modes of representing the Virgin’s breast reflect the complex, fragile, and ever-changing social atmosphere of late Medieval Europe. The three figures depict not merely three interpretations of the relationship between Mary and her son, but critically they also suggest the role of women in society, their relationship with the Church, and the metaphorical motherhood of the Church, Ecclesia.
Virgin and Child with Cradle, ca. 1350-1400 is the oldest of the three statuettes, carved out of ivory somewhere in the Upper Rhineland of Germany. The Virgin is rendered with a long, willowy silhouette. She wears a simple, delicate crown from which a veil falls, and the only skin exposed is that of her face, neck, hands, and a single, impossibly protruding breast. The reductive depiction of the Virgin’s breast is stylistically incongruent with other aspects of the statuette, such as the Virgin’s waving hair, loose smile, and soft, creased neck all otherwise resembling interpretive realism. In her essay The Virgin’s One Bare Breast, Marg
aret Miles argues that such a targeted abstraction of the breast reflects a manufactured tension between spiritual meaning and eroticism. She points to the work of Anne Hollander, who in Seeing Through Clothes offers that depictions of the naked body in artwork are necessarily sexual, even when created or displayed in a religious context. Nudity in religious artworks subconsciously arouse the viewer, intensifying engagement with the art so that spiritual sensations are themselves heightened. Hollander further argues that the sexual gravitation toward a piece must be overcome by a compelling spiritual reaction to it . Drawing on notions of exploiting religious nudity, Miles more specifically considers the role of the tension manufactured through the exposure of Mary’s single breast. Offering the example of Andrea and Nino Pisano’s Madonna del Latte, ca. 1345-50 (Figure 4) , she points out that most often the single exposed breast would not have adhered to the erotic ideals of its own time and culture. The Madonna del Latte, sculpted within fifty years of Virgin and Child with Cradle, similarly portrays one breast as flat and covered, and another as swollen, conic, and impossibly protruding from a fully clothed chest. Miles argues that not only does the impossibility of such an abstracted breast in part desexualize the Virgin, but as does that breast’s departure from the sexually ideal breast of the period: petite and high on the chest. Viewers in late medieval Europe would have seen not “a privileged glimpse of a normally concealed breast, but rather that the cone-shaped breast from which the Christ Child was nourished is not actually a part of Mary’s body but an appendage.”
In light of Miles’ work, the prevalence of abstracted representations of the Virgin’s breast in late Medieval painting and sculpture suggests that, opposingly, the explication of the breast would be perceived sexually. Hollander’s observations, however, argue that whether explicated or abstracted, even the Virgin’s breast would have received a sexual response; though had the breast been explicated, the reaction would be too sexual to dominate the sense of religious meaning in a work. Underlying both Miles and Hollander’s arguments, then, is the prior assumption that the explicitly rendered body of the Virgin is inherently sexual and is necessarily subject to the same gaze as that of all women. That Mary’s body is also subject to the male gaze has powerful implications for the ways in which women might project themselves onto the simultaneously corporal and divine figure, and in this sense the abstraction-- a concealment-- of the Virgin’s sexuality might offer that she is not entirely unlike her female audience.
Statuettes such as Virgin and Child with Cradle, then, might specifically invite females viewers to find a stake within the Christ narrative. It is worth noting that the statuette was carved approximately when the prominence given to the Virgin in scriptural interpretation was at its highest in medieval Europe. Thomas Aquinas indicated the coporality of Mary when representing her as a model of the ideal woman, saying “despise not yourselves, women, the son of God was born of a Woman.” Bernardino of Siena, one of Italy’s most well-regarded preachers of the fifteenth century, said “God fashioned us from the soil, but Mary formed us from her pure blood… God nourished us with the fruits of paradise, but she noursided him with her most holy milk.” The Virgin perhaps might spiritually empower all women, specifically if the natural, humanistic, and intimate action of breastfeeding is portrayed divinely.
Though the visual works of late Medieval Europe might suggest parallels between the bodies of the Virgin and mortal women, the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries did not relate its praise of the Virgin to a female audience. Aelred of Rievaulx, for instance, wrote that “It is she… who has given us life, who nourishes and raises us... she is our mother much more than our mother according to the flesh.” While art and literature of the late Medieval period alluded to the parallels between the flesh of Christ and man, women were not verbally encouraged to identify themselves with Mary. Theologians like Rievaulx had actively disputed the value of corporal motherhood; he preached that Mary embodied not a corporal role model for women, but instead an ethereal divinity they might never resemble themselves. They lacked a surrogate in the Christ narrative, a conduit to the spiritual realm. Miles extends that late Medieval women were “blocked by verbal emphasis on the unbridgeable chasm between the ideal Virgin and actual women, and by presenting attachment to the mother Virgin as an alternative to actual mothers.”
The second figure which this paper concerns is the South Netherlandish or French Virgin and Child ca.1400-20, carved out of walnut. The silhouette of her body is more naturalistic than that of the willowy Virgin and Child with Cradle, though somewhat obscured by the dramatic folds of her billowing dress. Her clothes are parted at the chest to reveal a single breast which she holds with her left hand as if encouraging the infant Christ to breastfeed. Each of her fingers makes visible impressions in her breast, which is rounded and sits low on the chest.
Particularly when viewed in comparison to Virgin and Child with Cradle, the early fifteenth century statuette illustrates a departure from abstraction, instead explicating the materiality, weight, and form of a woman’s breast. Though the breast has been rendered with careful detail, this explication does not necessarily suggest sexualization; its size and weight (as that of the abstracted breast) very purposefully does not conform to the period’s sexual ideal. Still, the Virgin’s breast is convincingly revealed from her parted dress, while her fingers visibly press into her skin. Importantly, Virgin and Child ca.1400-20 illustrates a moment of breastfeeding rather than symbolizing it. Where the need to dampen the sexuality of the Virgin and Child with Cradle’s breast indirectly related female viewers to the body of Mary, the explication of nursing in the later sculpture demystifies and celebrates the breast. What might have encouraged such a decision to explicate the Virgin’s breast? Commissioned during the fifteenth century, the statuette possibly suggests the Church’s growing concern regarding the popularity of wet nursing.
The controversy surrounding wet nursing might be further evidenced by Julia Hairston’s discussion of family structures in Medieval and Renaissance Lactations. In Chapter 10, “The Economics of Milk and Blood in Alberti’s Libri della famiglia: Maternal versus Wet-Nursing,” Hairston considers the Libri della famiglia, a work still widely regarded as formative to contemporary family philosophy. In it, the family is framed as a miniature state whose operations ought to be regulated as if it were a political body. In the fifteenth century, documents like the Libra della famiglia gained influence as feudal power structures diminished, and the wealthiest families of Europe saw growing leverage in the spheres of their principalities. Alberti strongly suggests that a mother nurse her own child, and such a suggestion would not have been included had he not believed wet nursing were disruptive to mechanics of the household. The belief was mirrored by the ongoing efforts of Catholic Church. Hairston concludes her essay by reflecting on the most perceivable, though unspoken, result of mothers breastfeeding their own children: enclosure. She argues that “Maternal breastfeeding functions as a rein with which to bridle a woman’s movement (and her potential sexual errancy) by keeping her closed within the familial shell.”
The fifteenth century praise of the Virgin’s breast and breastfeeding through explication presents a deep irony: her motherhood and physical breast are glorified, but this praise strips her (and women who seek a spiritual conduit through her) of authority. In her book Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages : Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy, Madeline Caviness underscores such a notion: “This most gazed upon woman of the Middle Ages turns out to epitomize the problematic of the female body as an object of the gaze… she was as often given a prominent role in a narrative as she was immobilized as icon; but even so, ideology was at work to deny her agency.”
The youngest of the three figures is the North Netherlandish Virgin and Child, mid-15th century, which would have originally been set at the center of a tabernacle. The Virgin stands rather than sits, leaning gently to her right as she balances Christ against her left hip. Though she faces forward, she glances to the side to meet the gaze of her infant, who holds a sizable bunch of grapes out over her right breast. The Virgin pinches her fingers to pluck a grape from the bunch, a gesture unmistakably resembling that of the Virgin portrayed in the South Netherlandish/French Virgin and Child, ca. 1400-20, who gently persuades Christ to latch onto her breast. The Metropolitan’s plaque suggests that the offering of grapes symbolizes the Eucharist, a reference to the components of wine. Importantly, however, the location of the bunch of grapes just above the breast and her gesture also imply breastfeeding.
In The Cult of Breastfeeding, Sue Lawrence explains that the Church commissioned works which would present the Virgin breastfeeding as a metaphor for the proliferation of humanity. This metaphor certainly resonates with the imagery of Virgin and Child, mid-15th century. Both Christ and Mary hold the bundle of grapes, almost impossibly; Christ’s small hand rests over the bundle, while the fingers of the Virgin pinch a grape from its bottom. The bundle floats between the hands of the two, and close inspection reveals that neither figure supports its weight. This uncanny detail seems to underscore the importance of both Christ and the Virgin in the offering of the Eucharist, insinuating that the offering of the Eucharist is the metaphorical breastfeeding of mankind.
If the bundle of grapes is indeed an implicated breast, then the recipient of its milk is not Christ, but rather the viewer. In her essay “The Social and Religious Context of Iconographic Oddity,” Patricia
Simons discusses how the visual motif of breastfeeding has been used to illustrate the Church’s role as the nourisher of mankind. She identifies the tradition of Madonna Lactans which were almost always small, low-profile pieces in the church or home. In 1484 (approximately the same time the North Netherlandish figure was carved), however,
Botteceli’s altarpiece The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Figure 5) marked the first of a trend of large-scale altarpieces which portrayed an enthroned, breastfeeding Virgin and child. Simons argues that this shift to large scale representations of breastfeeding sought to more publicly assert Mary’s embodiment of Ecclesia, the mother church. The physical act of the Virgin’s offering sustenance to Christ was likened to the Church’s offering of spiritual sustenance to the people. The same can be seen in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s The Virgin and Child in Glory with Sts. Dominic, Michael, John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist, ca. 1491-94 (Figure 6), which more explicitly renders the single breast of Mary to which the infant Christ clings. The Virgin and child are surrounded by the most prominent figures of the early Church, discarding any ambiguity that the act of breastfeeding illustrates Ecclesia.
The various stylistic renditions of the Madonna Lactans’ breast-- abstracted, explicated, and implied-- are worth considering beyond mere aesthetics. A comprehensive approach to the possible motives of each statuette’s commission is critical to understanding messages the sculptures might have sought to convey. The abstracted breast illustrat
ed by Virgin and Child with Cradle, for instance, might either desexualize the breast or suggestively mute the sexuality of the Virgin’s breast. In either case, abstraction serves the purpose of allowing the spirituality of the Virgin to dominate her coporality. Abstraction simultaneously allows a limited resonance with the Virgin’s body, more intimately connecting her body to that of a female audience than if her breast had not been shown. The later Virgin and Child, ca. 1400-1420 ulilizes explication of the breast as a means of drawing even more tangible parallels between a female audience and the Virgin. These parallels might have urged mothers to embody the Virgin, to breastfeed their own children rather than hiring a wet nurse (an increasingly popular, yet controversial, practice). The North Netherlandish Virgin and Child, finally, neither abstracts nor implicates the breast. Instead, the placement of a bundle of grapes recalls spiritual breastfeeding. The recipient of the Virgin’s milk is not the infant Christ, then, but the viewer who would receive Eucharist. The statuette illustrates the role of the mother Church, Ecclesia, in the spiritual nourishment of viewers.
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Bernardino of Siena, quoted in: Translated by Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, I. New York: Sheed and Ward,
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