Like a sunbeam passing through a windowpane, the Eternal Light entered and exited His mother’s body without harming the seal of her virginity. In fact, nearly all patristic and medieval authorities taught that her delivery of Jesus was as quick and miraculous as her conception of Him.
But if being born of a virgin points to Christ’s divinity, developing in the womb of a woman and being fed by her breasts bear powerful witness to His humanity. Both before and after birth, in signs visible to others, the God-Man grew from Mary’s substance. “It is in this way,” St. John Chrysostom said, “that the Mystery of the Divine Economy is accepted by all.” So liberation theologians celebrate the sisterly solidarity of a “woman of the people,” who gestates and lactates as other women do.
In past centuries, when Catholics appreciated the shocking fleshiness of our faith, artists delighted in depicting Maria Gravida (Mary pregnant) and Maria Lactans (Mary nursing). The absence of these motifs today is regrettable because it impoverishes our sense of religious “body language.”
Milk of Grace
Though modern sensibilities may wince, the more explicit the image, the better it satisfied the cravings of medieval Christians to see, feel, and taste the holy. Their spirituality depended heavily on visual cues. “Realism, the more penetrating the better, was consecrated as a form of worship,” observes art historian Leo Sternberg. Medieval people were fascinated by the bodiliness of Christ, Mary as the bearer of Christ, and themselves as imitators of Christ. For them, the Incarnation was the “humanation” of God, Sternberg says.
When devout people in the Middle Ages—men and women alike—attempted “to bring Christ to birth spiritually,” they meditated on images in order to experience imaginary childbearing. Sometimes their bodies actually swelled with mystic pregnancy and dripped or drank miraculous milk.
In pre-modern medical theory, blood and milk were supposedly interconvertible. But besides being natural cause and effect, gestation and lactation were symbolically joined in metabolic mysticism. As Jesus revealed to St. Mechtild of Magdeburg in the 13th century: “The Blood of Grace is like the Milk that I drank from my Virgin Mother.”
These ideas linked a series of associations. Mary’s womb-blood that nourished the unborn Christ-child became the milk that later fed Him at her breast. This in turn became Christ’s redemptive blood, which worshipers drank like milk as they suckled at His wounded side. This cleft led to a womblike cavity wherein Christians could take refuge to be formed into other Christs.
Mary’s body was the locus of this blood-milk transformation. Because the womb and breasts function as containers, “container” defines the elementary character of the feminine for Jungian scholar Erich Neumann. Our Lady is his prime example of the Good Mother who brings us to life and bears us with blood from her womb. She is the transforming virgin, who nurtures physically and spiritually with milk from her breasts.
The virgin mother of God is indeed the ultimate container because, in the words from her Lenten votive Mass, “He whom the whole world cannot contain enclosed Himself in your womb and was made man.” Thus it is no coincidence that containers provide so many metaphors for Mary. Patristic typologies taken from the Old Testament compare Mary to a temple, a manna pot, an unopened gate, a sealed fountain, an enclosed garden, and a tabernacle. The Middle Ages added bridal chamber, shrine, hall, palace, and reliquary. These turn into high poetry in the Byzantine Akathist hymn (where Mary is referred to as fortress, treasure-house, sanctuary, and font) and the Western Litany of Loreto (where she figures as a vessel, tower, and house ark). In short, God finds His unique abode in His mother’s womb.
Our Pregnant Mother
Religious images can illustrate a narrative or stand alone as objects of devotion. Maria Gravida and Maria Lactans have served both purposes since their emergence in patristic times, although in the West, Maria Gravida is more often linked to scriptural incidents, while Maria Lactans is more often devotional.
Any representation of the Visitation, St. Joseph’s doubt, the journey to Bethlehem, as well as many views of the apocalyptic woman and some of the tree of Jesse, depict a pregnant Blessed Mother, whether her condition is emphasized or not. Only the Visitation, the most popular subject, will be discussed here.
Among the earliest examples of the Visitation are the Monza Ampoule, a sixth-century pilgrim’s souvenir from the Holy Land, and gospel miniatures from Armenia and Syria. The Visitation was largely ignored in the Greek East, where it had no feast day.
But by the twelfth century, Western artists were beginning to thicken the bodies of Mary and Elizabeth. In late medieval European miniatures, where the Visitation usually illustrates Lauds in the Hours of the Virgin, the women often call attention to their gravid state by touching each other’s bodies affectionately. This kind of treatment culminates in High Renaissance paintings of the Visitation by Raphael and Pontormo.
But by 1300, Germanic artists had begun doing something more daring: They actually showed Jesus and St. John in their mothers’ wombs. Following medieval convention, these “fetal” views show tiny, fully formed babies standing, sitting—or in the Baptist’s case—kneeling. The unborn children are usually surrounded by aureoles and circles or may simply be seen floating in their mothers’ wombs. One lovely example of this motif is a Rhenish ivory sculpture of the Visitation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Here, rock crystal cabochons rest beneath the mothers’ hearts, covering painted fetal images.
Independent images of Maria Gravida were frequently the focus of women’s prayers for fertility and safe childbirth, especially in Germanic and Latin lands. Although not illustrative, these images use the same devices as the Visitation scenes.
In the Middle Ages, gravid Marian figures swell below high-hitched belts. They glow with health and happiness; in some cases we see light emanating from their wombs. The finest such depiction—still a beloved object of popular piety—is Pierro della Francesca’s painting Madonna del Parto (1467), in which Mary is a serene Tuscan lady attended by angels, her outer maternity gown partly opened.
More explicit still, pregnant Madonnas were carved like anatomical models, with niches that hold a removable Infant. One example that is still a popular pilgrimage goal is the much-copied Bogenberg Madonna in Bavaria, sculpted about 1400, whose uterine Child peeps out between the edges of a real brocade cloak.
Pushing the idea of the niche-womb to its extreme yielded hollow wooden “Shrine Madonnas.” Though developed around 1300 by Germans, they are generally known as Vierges ouvrantes (opening Virgins). An example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the only surviving Vierge ouvrante that is a Maria Lactans on the outside and a Maria Gravida on the inside. Mary’s body opens up to reveal a now-incomplete carving of the Trinity, with paintings of the infancy narratives along the sides. The figure might have served as a pyx or as a small tabernacle. Its design echoes a medieval prayer, Salve mater salvationis (Hail, Mother of Salvation), which calls Mary a “threefold fortress” where “God flowered from you in His threefoldedness.” As art historian Henk van Os observes, Mary “has Salvation in her belly in the most literal way possible.”
The same strategies for depicting pregnancy in Mary and Elizabeth were also applied to St. Anne, whose cult surged in the late Middle Ages. Anne carries a floating fetal image of Mary on her body or holds a tiny miniature of Mary on her lap. An illustration from a French Book of Hours printed in 1510 shows Anne praying with Mary, who holds Jesus within a circle of light, affixed to her breast. All three figures are surrounded by symbols of the Immaculate Conception.
In response to Protestant criticism and tightening social mores, the Council of Trent discouraged all unseemly religious images. Fortunately, images of an explicitly pregnant Mary were not systematically destroyed, and some continued to be made in Iberia for another 200 years. The Spanish and the Portuguese were not willing to part with their beloved Advent Madonnas.
One symbolic style of Maria Gravida that escaped Counter-Reformation policies was the Aehrenklied (Ear-of-Wheat Dress) Madonna that originated in 15th-century Germany and endured for 300 years. In this popular motif, a young, newly pregnant Mary is dressed in a midnight blue gown powdered with heads of golden wheat and adorned with sunburst bands at the neck and wrists. A medieval sermon called her “The holy field where God sowed grain that grew up to become the bread of heaven.”
Otherwise, Baroque piety created discreet expectant Mothers with sunbursts or monograms of Christ on their bodies. Yet it was during this period that German monstrances were made with the luna (which contains the Host) positioned over the Blessed Mother’s breast or belly—a more daring design than anything from the Middle Ages.
Eastern Christendom avoided these iconographic ups and downs by clinging to a purely symbolic representation of Mary’s pregnancy. Preferring that all its religious art take the form of icons, which are meant to serve as visible interfaces with eternity, the East rejected naturalism and cozy detail.
In the sixth century, the era of the earliest Visitation scenes, easterners developed the Theotokos Platytera (the God-Bearer “More Spacious Than [the Heavens]”), whose title is a quote from the Liturgy of St. Basil: “Your womb He made more spacious than the heavens.” Here the virgin mother stands with arms upraised in prayer, while the bust of a clothed Christ-child hangs suspended in a disk (clipeus) on her breast. The divinely intent Infant is Emmanuel, the Eternal Word who will be born into time.
In Russia, this enduring design is known as the Mother of God of the Sign (Znameniye), after the sign of the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. Its most famous example is the splendid Panhagia (All-Holy) of Yaroslav, painted in 1224. Less common variations show the newly incarnate Savior imprinted on His mother’s mantle, tucked into its folds, or suspended without the clipeus, somewhat like the floating fetal images of western Europe.
Medieval contacts between Constantinople and Italy brought the Platytera motif westward. It even inspired hybrid forms, such as a Madonna carved by the Venetian Bartolomeo Buon in 1450, a Platytera who spreads her cloak of mercy over worshipers while standing before the tree of Jesse. With the renewed Western interest in icons, the authentic Platytera is becoming popular again.
But no pregnancy lasts forever, not even a divine one. Once born, Jesus needed exactly the same nursing as other children to survive. As feminist Marina Warner observes in Alone of All Her Sex (1976), “The mystery of the incarnate God is concentrated with unique intensity in the symbol of Mary’s milk.”
Offering the breast was the Blessed Mother’s first service to her Son, according to the apocryphal Protevangelium, the book of St. James. Pseudo-Bonaventure tells us that Mary washed Him in her milk as well. The immaculate New Eve, like the fallen Old Eve, demonstrates her mothering skills by breastfeeding. But unlike Mother Eve’s milk, Mary’s is “truly virginal, the nectar of the spiritual life, through which death is defeated,” according to the Scholastic writer John of Garland. Because nursing was supposed to transmit character, it reinforced the effect Mary’s blood already had on Jesus.
In short, the Madonna’s breastfeeding displays the power of her motherly role, her capacity for protection, her willingness to intercede. Because she nursed Christ, she became the nutrix omnium (the nurse of us all). And Christian art has made these themes gloriously visible.
The earliest image of Maria Lactans is a fresco in the catacomb of Priscilla from around the year 250. It shows a seated mother nursing a squirmy baby while a man beside them points to a star, illustrating the prophecy of Balaam, “A star shall rise out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17).
Nevertheless, the motif of Mary breastfeeding first matured in the East, not the West, with the Copts rather than the Greeks leading the way. There are Egyptian examples of Maria Lactans from the fifth and sixth centuries, possibly intended as antidotes to cult images of the goddess Isis nursing her son, Horus.
The Byzantines independently created their own version of the motif, which they called the Mother of God Galactotrophousa (the Milk-Giver). Like the Mother of God of Tenderness, from which it developed, the Milk-Giver image is shadowed by the cross. The suckling Christ lying upon His mother suggests a sacrifice on an altar. Both milk and blood were symbols of Christ’s Passion, according to St. Clement of Alexandria.
The Galactotrophousa became rare after the eighth century triumph over iconoclasm, because the Greeks had come to view it as too naturalistic. But some later Russian examples exist, and the motif still survives in Ethiopia.
Mother of Humility
The nursing Madonnas of early medieval Europe are more rigid and regal than Byzantine examples. But Gothic interest in the humanity of our Lord and the mercifulness of our Lady generated an entirely new approach to Maria Lactans. Around 1300, the Sienese painter Simone Martini invented the Madonna of Humility.
In this widely adopted formula, Mary sits on the ground tenderly nursing Jesus. He turns toward the viewer, welcoming us to share this intimate moment and acknowledge His full humanity. Paradoxically, Mary is decked with the sun, moon, and stars of the Apocalyptic Woman (Revelation 12:1); being humblest has made her highest. Promoted by the Dominicans, the Madonna of Humility spread across Italy, France, Spain, Bohemia, and the Low Countries. Artists modified it by placing the Blessed Mother on a cushion, in clouds, or in a garden. The Flemish painter Robert Campin depicted her at home in his symbol-rich Madonna and Child Before a Firescreen (1430). Jan van Eyck, Gerard David, and Joos van Cleve also painted exquisite domestic versions of the Madonna of Humility in the 15th and 16th centuries. The fruit often included in these compositions has Eucharistic associations. A bunch of grapes stands for both Mary’s breast and the wine for the Blessed Sacrament.
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 boasted 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. Thanks to the popularity of that title, Mary has become the informal patroness of the non-sectarian 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.
In some corners of the Catholic world, Mary remains what she was for ancient Christians—”the wet-nurse of salvation.”
What if Catholics of the third millennium were to rediscover Mary’s radiant womb and abundant breasts? Imagine the impact on pro-life causes and reproductive concerns or the encouragement offered to breastfeeding women. If young children saw images of Mary obviously pregnant or nursing the infant Jesus, would they see her in their own mothers, and vice versa? Could enriched Marian symbolism avert interest in goddess worship and Wicca among our young people? Would it foster a healthy respect for the body, counteracting both sensualism and prudery?
Old devotions cannot be simply reintroduced—the cultural contexts that gave them meaning no longer exist. But striking images from the past could be promoted and new ones created. Patristic and medieval thinking about the significance of Mary’s body could be recovered, rethought, and reapplied. There can never be too much reverence for Mary’s call to mother God.