The Persuasive Power of a Mother’s Breast

An interesting paper by Salvador Ryan, The Persuasive Power of a Mother’s Breast: The Most Desperate Act of the Virgin Mary’s Advocacy, discusses the once-popular images of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, or exposing her breast to him, as depicting two forms of Mary’s intercession. I disagree with the “desperation” of his title and thesis, but the two forms of intercession are different in very interesting ways.

The image of the Virgo Lactans (Breast-Feeding Virgin) “which occurs as early as the third century in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome . . . [became] very popular, particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” particularly on tombs(60).

The prominence of this image on tombs is interesting, in that it represents an acknowledgement of the role of the Virgin at the hour of death – namely, keeping her Son at bay while the rigours of judgement were implemented. While Mary holds Christ in her arms He appears subdued and less likely to exercise His judicial office. Mary, therefore, nurses Christ while her devotees pour into Heaven.

The supposition is that Mary’s breastfeeding Christ either distracts him, soothes him, or awakens mercy in him:

The Franciscan friar-poet, Philip Bocht O hUiginn (d.1487), relates how, ‘turned aside from exacting justice, the Son in her arms drank at her bosom, white milky bosom by which was dissolved His wrath’. . . It is possible that the mother who breast-fed her child was perceived as transferring something of her own nature to the child. Perhaps this also accounts for the calming effect of the milk on Christ. . . . Suckling Mary’s breast was thought somehow to activate a merciful side to Christ, a side that He inherited from His earthly mother. His justice was thus cheated of its usual domination
of His character[.] (61-2)

The second form, in which Mary exposes her breast to Christ but is not actually nursing him, became popular starting in the thirteenth century. Her gesture is understood as reminding him that she did nurse him and thus has a claim on him, by which she intercedes for us. Fascinatingly, this is explained as a direct parallel of the way in which Christ himself intercedes for us with his Father:

The Benedictine abbot, Arnold of Bonneval (d. after 1156), while discussing the mediatory roles of both Mary and Christ, she before the Son and He before the Father, during the course of a sermon, went on to illustrate this mediation by using an image of Christ, bare-chested, displaying His wounds to His Father and Mary, in her turn, uncovering her breast before Christ. Thereafter, the image passed into popular use, and was increasingly applied to the Virgin imploring her Son for mercy. . . . Mary’s breasts, therefore, are symbolic of her nursing of Christ and, by extension, of her compliance with His will, declared in her Fiat, at the Annunciation. They serve to signify that Mary merits the attention of God, and that she has a right to use this merit to plead for mercy on behalf of humanity. (63, 71)

Ryan spends a good bit of time reviewing the pre-Christian origins of this gesture and exploring the means by which it got to medieval Ireland, but he ignores what to my mind is the more interesting question: how did Christ become transformed from the Savior whose intercession averted the judgment of his Father, to a figure whose judgement needed to be averted by some other intercessor??

It looks to me like the result of an excessively modalist trinitarian theology, in which Christ becomes so identified with God the Father that he can no longer intercede for us, because the trinity has collapsed into a modalist unity and therefore he would be interceding with himself, which doesn’t make any sense.

It’s really very interesting to see how the role of Mary as intercessor and advocate seems to have emerged in response to a failure of Christology. Protestant criticisms of mariology frequently emphasize the apparent idolatry of praying to Mary rather than to God; this historical context suggests that critiques that emphasize Christ’s sufficiency as our intercessor are more apt.

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3 Responses to The Persuasive Power of a Mother’s Breast

  1. Fascinating! All I previously knew about Maria Lactans is that they were generally desexualized (with the small, oddly placed breasts). It’s interesting that there are images in which the Virgin shows her breast to Christ outside of nursing scenarios. Do you know any specific examples of this?

    To me this seems to be related to the idea of women calming men. I recently looked into the use of unicorns in Renaissance artwork and found that often they reflect the perceived balance between male and female, in that the unicorn (representing the male) can only be soothed/tamed by the maiden (representing the female). Seeing as how the Virgin Mary and unicorns both generally convey ideas of purity I’d be interested in seeing how the Virgin Mary and Christ’s relationship in these works compare.

    It’s somewhat late for me, but I’ll definitely read the linked article in the morning. Thanks for the great post!

    • The paper by Ryan includes some specific examples of both types of images. I’ll be interested to hear your take on them.

      Placing this analysis next to the theme of “women calming men” suggests an underlying anthropology in which men are more godlike than women, given the suggestion that Jesus imbibes both milk and mercy from his human mother. Or conversely, it suggests that indeed, “when God is male, the male is god”: if mercy is seen as both feminine and human over against justice/retribution seen as both masculine and divine.

      I don’t especially resonate to the question about unicorns, Mary, and purity. Partly that’s because I seriously don’t “get” Christian purity as a thing: it seems to me that the Incarnation blows it out of the water. But it’s also because, if I had to pick the primary symbol of purity in Christian iconography, it would be the Lamb.

      (Mind you, we’ve been hearing about the Lamb in Revelation all Eastertide, so it might be more strongly on my mind than usual. 🙂 )

  2. Pingback: Cardinal Braz de Aviz’ Remarks on Authority in the Church | Gaudete Theology

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