Tuesday, March 31, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Five

Holy Mary, Mother of God!

This past weekend, the following comment was left by Zoo under a post over three years old about my visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid and my surprise at images of the Virgin Mary squirting her breast milk in people's faces:

Zoo said...
Hi Bill, this is an area that interests me greatly as I am writing a PhD dissertation concerning breastmilk as a cultural artifact. However I cannot get the crisis link to work? Brings me to a home page, but does not provide an article? I would love to cite some of this, but obviously need proper reference details to do so...

Thanks to all for the wonderful discussion.

The Bill she is referring to is my friend Bill Sebring and the crisis link she mentions is, sadly, inactive. This is one of those posts that had a lot of great comments, but I think it's worth reposting Bill's, especially as the source seems to have vanished in the virtual air.

bill said...
John, all,

Unfamiliar with this, but stole some text from Crisis (!) which I reproduce here (and includes a St. Bernard reference):

Contemporary with the Madonna of Humility, comparisons between the humble mother's flowing breast and her redeeming Son's bleeding heart yielded a startling type of composition known as !the Double Intercession. Mary and Jesus stand on either side of God the Father, Mary baring her breast, Christ touching His wounded side. Mother and Son beg mercy for human supplicants, the dying, the plague-ridden, or the world at the Last Judgment. In some examples, we see Christ's blood and Mary's milk poured out to relieve the souls in purgatory. The Madonna even squirts out milk to extinguish purgatorial fires in a painting by Filoseti dell'Amatrice (1508).

Before they were suppressed by the decorous reforms of Trent, these images supported an astonishing range of piety. The medieval craving for physical contact with the divine took satisfaction in reports of lactation miracles.

While St. Bernard of Clairvaux knelt in prayer, a statue of Maria Lactans came to life and bestowed three drops of milk on his lips. St. Gertrude the Great nursed the Baby Jesus and Blessed Angela of Foligno nursed at Christ's side. Lidwina of! Schiedam saw Mary and her attendant virgins fill the sky with floods of their milk. In legend, suckling the Virgin or living saints brought healing and blessings.

Religious allegories celebrated lactation. Mary was the maiden in the garden who gave suck to the unicorn-Christ, the innocent victim hunted by men. Ecclesia, Sophia, Caritas, and sundry Virtues were shown as nursing mothers.

Popular devotions centered on relics, pilgrimages, and patronages that would assist breastfeeding women. Because Mary's body had been taken to heaven, her prime relic was her milk. From early Christian times people scraped chalky white deposits from the Milk Chapel in Bethlehem, a cave where Mary was believed to have spilled some of her milk. Mixed with water, these samples became the countless relics of the Madonna's milk that are still widely preserved in Europe.

Even Charlemagne had a specimen mounted in a jeweled talisman. France alone boast!ed at least 46 milk shrines, but the most famous in the West was Walsingham, England, established in the twelfth century. Pilgrims reached it via a road called the "Milky Way."

For critics, this was rather too much of a good thing. A century before the Reformation, St. Bernardine of Siena quipped that Mary must have given more milk than a hundred cows.

Although Trent caused some dubious relics to be discarded, it failed to shake Hispanic interest in the nursing Virgin. Maria Lactans images remained popular, including such curious ones as a colonial painting of Our Lady of Belem from 18th-century Bolivia, in which drops of the Madonna's milk turn into blood-red rosary beads.

The Spanish cult of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) was brought to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1603. A small chapel built in 1918 still stands on the original shrine's site. Thank!s to the popularity of that title, Mary has become the informal patroness of the nonsectarian La Leche League for nursing mothers.

Active milk-shrines still exist in France, at Crèe-lait in Nantes and Bon Lait in Persac. Bretons seeking ample breast milk process around a huge, decorated mound of butter each summer at Notre Dame-du-Crann.

As I said, I was unable to find the original article, but while doing a google search, I did stumble on the webpage Mary Lactans: Mary As A Nursing Mother from which the below images are taken. Given the fact that I was raised Catholic in America, the abundance of such images is surprising, to say the least. Less surprising is that most of the images come from the 16th Century and before.

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