Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Nursing Virgin

Proving that you never know WHAT you will find in the free discard magazine section of a public library, I ran into an old issue of Christian Century (January 29, 2008) featuring an article on images of the Blessed Mother . . . nursing Jesus. It was written by Margaret R. Miles and I can't link to it because the magazine archives on-line are for subscribers only (grumble, grumble). However, once again I will save you some time with my helpful oversimplification of the article and if this interests you, check out the author's book, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750.

Ms. Miles tells us, "Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of late medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures depict the Virgin Mary with one breast exposed as she is nursing or preparing to nurse the infant Christ."

What happened? Well, art got more realistic looking for one thing and it started showing exposed breasts in some non-maternal contexts, both secular and religious. That was followed by the printing press which enabled the spread of pornography to the masses. Also, as medical science progressed there were books on anatomy in circulation that were one more blow to the sacredness we held in our minds regarding the maternal breast. Ms. Miles concludes for us, "By 1750 the public meaning of naked breasts was largely medical or erotic."

I have to say, personally, that I have a much easier time (having joyfully nursed my babies for many years) seeing Mary's maternal breast as a sign of God's love for me than crucifixion images. Not to downplay the importance of that sacrifice but it never really brings up those lovey-dovey feelings in me that I am told it should.

The picture above is of Our Lady of La Leche and she has a shrine in St. Augustine, Florida. When I lived down there I knew several people who, when pregnant, made pilgrimage to that chapel. And the date of that devotion? 1600s.

I would love to hear your (respectful) comments on this subject.



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