Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

The Milk of Salvation

by Staff

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