Add to My MSN

The Milk of Salvation

3/26/2008 3:48:07 PM

Tags: religious art, devotional art, virgin mary, baby jesus, renaissance art, medieval art, catholic church

Madonna and ChildIt’s no secret that the leaders of many Christian traditions prefer to stick with unambiguously male depictions of God, despite the feminine alternatives present in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But it hasn’t always been this way.

The cross—that complex symbol of male violence, shame, courage, and sacrifice—didn’t start out as the dominant Christian symbol, Margaret R. Miles writes in the Christian Century (article not available online). Late medieval and Renaissance art often features the Virgin Mary, one breast exposed, nursing the baby Jesus. The mother’s breast is a symbol of God’s love; her milk represents salvation. Miles traces the history of this image and details how it was eventually replaced by one far manlier:

By 1750 the public meaning of naked breasts was largely medical or erotic. I have not been able to find a single religious image of the breast painted after 1750. By that time, it was impossible to symbolize God’s love by depicting a nursing Virgin. Meanwhile, crucifixion scenes increased in number and in their graphic depiction of violence and suffering.

She goes on to conclude that we’d do well to bring the nursing-mother image back:

In societies in which violence is rampant on the street and in the media, the nursing Virgin can perhaps communicate God’s love to people in a way that a violent image, the image of one more sacrificial victim, cannot.

On a related note, the Vatican recently clarified that all Catholics baptized in the name of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—a popular gender-neutral alternative to father, son, and holy spirit—should be re-baptized using the proper male names for God.

Steve Thorngate

Related Content

Shopping for a New Religion? Start Here.

A Buddhist monk builds a spiritual supermarket. If you’re ever in Taiwan….

Faith of Our Artists

In “American Qu’ran,” the artist Sandow Birk attempts to bridge several vast divides—between art and...

The Trouble With “God, Gays, and Populism”

Mike Huckabee’s biggest hurdle with movement conservatives is the fact that he combines his social c...

What Sets Off Suicide Bombers?

Foreign occupation—not religious extremism—motivates explosive martyrdom...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


Steve Thorngate_16
4/7/2008 1:20:41 PM
"You are wrong about the 'proper male names' business."--I think you mean that there's broad disagreement about this. It's not like my statement slipped through fact checking or something. "And how, pray tell, does Ms. Miles know that the breast (and motherhood) was the dominant symbol for God's love in ancient Christianity?"--Miles focuses on devotional art and makes a pretty persuasive argument, spelled out in the full version of her article. "I'd say that the conversion of the breast into an erotic object not representable in religious art stems more from the secular hypersexualization of the Renaissance than from anything the Church did."--I don't think Miles is arguing that the church intentionally purged depictions of breasts so much as that, for any number of complicated reasons, there's a counterintuitive move in the history of Christian art. Which seems to me to be an important corrective to anyone who assumes that any movement in the direction of gender inclusivity is a betrayal of church tradition.

Dan Berger
4/7/2008 9:37:01 AM
And how, pray tell, does Ms. Miles know that the breast (and motherhood) was the dominant symbol for God's love in ancient Christianity? It's not like there's any mention at all of the Cross in the New Testament, the earliest theologians or the Medievals. I'd say that the conversion of the breast into an erotic object not representable in religious art stems more from the secular hypersexualization of the Renaissance than from anything the Church did. Of course, there's always Proverbs 5:18-20 . I think the breast has always been a sexually alluring thing.

4/2/2008 9:42:23 AM
Steve fails to mention that in the Catholic Bible we have the Songs of Songs that has plenty of feminine images and let us not forget about the Book of Ruth. Wisdom has always been seen in the feminine form and the picture of Jesus nursing from Mary's breast is found in many Catholic Monastaries and Friaries (and in the Vatican as well). It is a reminder of the humanity of Jesus, who was both fully divine and fully human. Now what does the clarification from the Vatican has to do with the article? Nothing, probably more subtle anti-Catholicism, ignorance, and the unprofessional attempt of provoking contraversy. Steve didn't even captilized Father, Son, Holy Spirit nor mention that "creator, redeemer, sanctifier" was never authorized or found in any liturgical rite in the Catholic Church (both East and West). So ignore his last paragraph and you then have a good, enriching article.

4/1/2008 3:37:42 PM
Steve, you are wrong about the "proper male names" business. The words of baptism are quoted directly from scripture, and are those Jesus himself said: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Matthew 28:19.

Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!