While Jesus was speaking,
a woman from the crowd called out and said to him,
“Blessed is the womb that carried you
and the breasts at which you nursed.”
He replied, “Rather, blessed are those
who hear the word of God and observe it.”
The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus is known as Madonna Lactans, from the Latin words for milk and suckle; the lesser known Greek term is Galactotrofousa. This depiction was used in some of the earliest Christian art and may have been partially inspired from abundant Ancient Egyptian images of the goddess Isis nursing Horus, such as this one.
Isis Suckling Horus, bronze statuette, 1070–656 B.C., Egypt, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Although possibly based in pagan images of deity, the image of Jesus nursing at his mother’s breast emphasizes his humanity while at the same time pointing to the exalted role of Mary as the Mother of God. For Catholics, this reveals the fleshly importance of the incarnation of the Son of God. Just as Christ receives his earthly sustenance from the body of his mother Mary, so we receive our spiritual sustenance from his body and blood in the Eucharist. The Virgin’s milk signifies the blood of Christ on the cross and in the Eucharist. For more on this idea, read this article.
Do a google search and you’ll see hundreds of images of the Madonna Lactans, but today I’ve chosen just a few of my favorites. The first image is the earliest one known from the Catacomb of Priscilla and dates to about the 3rd century. Although fragmentary, you can still clearly see the iconography that would remain fairly constant for this devotional image, with the infant Jesus turning to look out at the viewer while suckling from Mary.
Mary nursing Jesus, ca. 3rd c., Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
Our next image is a mosaic from the facade of Santa Maria Trastevere in Rome, a marvelous church in which I spent quite a bit of time one hot summer while staying at the American Academy on the nearby Janiculum Hill. This Byzantine-style image shows the breastfeeding Mary enthroned, with Virgins bringing offerings from either side.
Madonna Lactans Enthroned, mosaic, 1290-1310, Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome
Jan Van Eyck is another favorite of mine. Once again we see the nursing Mary enthroned. Be sure to click on the image to see the enlarged version, where you can examine Van Eyck’s splendid fabrics and details more closely.
Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1437, Oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
From the museum website:
“The Lucca Madonna served her unknown patron as a medium of private devotion. The painting cleverly takes the viewer right into the depicted room, making him part of the affectionately rendered intimate situation. This impression is created by the special manner in which the artist has configured the space: like the walls on either side and the vaulted ceiling, the tile floor and the carpet appear to continue into the viewer’s side of the picture’s surface. The effect is heightened by the suggestive painterly description of the various materials and surfaces – the skin, hair, fabric, carpet, walls, glass, water, metal, tiles and wood.
However natural in appearance, the scene is also full of symbolic references. The fruit in the Christ child’s hand, for example, alludes to the Fall of Man, the consequences of which are overcome through the incarnation of God. The throne with its lion decorations symbolizes not only the judgement seat of the proverbially just king Solomon, an ancestor to Christ, but also the Last Judgement. Already famous far and wide during his lifetime, Jan van Eyck – court painter to the dukes of Burgundy – died in 1441. He had painted the “Lucca Madonna” just a few years earlier, a work whose mastery and consistency of concept and execution we still find captivating to this day. Incidentally, the name by which the painting is known goes back to one of its previous owners: in the nineteenth century it was in the possession of the Duke of Lucca in Tuscany.”
The next painting seems so bizarre to me, I simply had to include it. One wonders whether the artist had ever seen an actual breast or if they had plastic surgery secrets in 15th Century France! Seriously though, I love how the painted whiteness of the skin makes Mary and Jesus appear like marble statues and contrasts so beautifully with the red and blue angels. Note how Fouquet has painted some glossy areas on the angels as if they are reflecting the light shining from the luminous mother and divine child.
Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium
This is what the museum says about this rather surreal image:
“This painting is the jewel in the crown of the Royal Museum’s collection. Although it has a strikingly modern feel, it was produced by French court painter Jean Fouquet as long ago as 1452. It was commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to the French King Charles VII. The Virgin Mary is depicted here as the Queen of Heaven, with the infant Jesus on her lap. The blue and red angels behind her richly decorated throne contrast strongly with the paleness of Mary and her child.
It is believed that Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII, modelled for the Virgin. She is dressed according to the fashion of the day. Her cloak and depilated hair line emphasise her eminence. The laced waist accentuates her bared breast and gives the composition an almost erotic quality. However, this was certainly not Fouquet’s intention when he produced the painting several centuries ago. It was quite simply a rendering of the Virgo Lactans, or the lactating virgin. She was supposed to highlight the worldly status of Jesus by showing that he, like all other children, was breastfed by his mother. The colours of the angels are most likely not coincidental. The three blue cherubs are believed to represent purity and air, while the six red seraphs are thought to symbolise love and fire. On closer scrutiny, it appears that just one group of angels actually touches Mary’s throne.”
I could find no other information about this adorable ivory figurine. Here we see Jesus as a toddler, eagerly standing on Mary’s lap and suckling for all he’s worth! Though his head isn’t turned towards us, note the little foot at an unnatural angle, indicating that he is, indeed, conscious of us.
Virgo Lactans, Anonymous French sculptor, ivory figurine
The image of the Madonna Lactans remained popular until the Council of Trent discouraged any depictions of nudity in the sixteenth century. Interestingly, this concern about nudity may have been prompted by the creation of the printing press. In a 2012 article, author David Gibson writes:
“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.”
There are quite a few other images of the nursing Mary and Jesus at this link, or if you google “Madonna Lactans” you can find your favorites.