The motherhood of the Blessed Virgin celebrated in art
The “Madonna Lactans” honored the maternal nature of the Virgin Mary.
From the Pietas to the Virgin of the Rocks, there have been countless striking depictions of the Virgin Mary in art. But on Mother’s Day, it is particularly appropriate to highlight the motherhood of the Virgin Mary as seen in the paintings known as “nursing Madonnas”.
Here the Blessed Mother is depicted breastfeeding the Christ Child, a very human gesture that spoke of Mary’s humility.
Early Examples of Nursing Madonnas
It is difficult to say when the first painting of the Nursing Madonna was created, but most art historians agree that the tradition began around the 12th century in Italy and other European countries. Western Europe, and was particularly important in Tuscany and Spain. A much older example, found in a fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, dating from the 2nd century, is a free-standing case of the Nursing Madonna in ancient art.
One of the earliest examples of medieval Madonna Lactans, a 12th-century mosaic on the facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, shows the Virgin Mary offering her breast to the infant Jesus as she is surrounded by 10 female figures, eight of whom wear regalia and two who are more simply dressed. Art historians believe the mosaic was a reference to the parable of the ten virgins, a story in which 10 virgins are expecting a groom, but half of them forget to bring both a lamp and a lamp to oil, thus missing the chance to meet the groom when he finally arrives late at night.
What is interesting is that in this representation, the Madonna and the Child Jesus look away from the viewer. The Christ Child is depicted gazing at the Virgin Mary, as she looks to her right. A few hundred years later, this same subject would often be depicted with both subjects staring at the viewer, further increasing the intimacy of the scene. For example, in a famous gilt panel held in the Louvre, Italian medieval painter Barnaba da Modena depicts both the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child gazing deeply at the viewer.
As explained in the Renaissance Reframed blog, while the act of breastfeeding was the central subject of these paintings, an equally important role was played by the gaze of Christ whose “direct eye contact with the viewer served to draw the viewer into the scene and engage it”. them in this extremely human and physical interaction.
Somewhere between these two iconographic configurations we find this altarpiece from 1270 depicting different chapters in the life of Saint Peter. Here, the Madonna gazes at the viewer while the Christ Child watches her.
What the many representations of the Madonna nurturer have in common is the deep emphasis on the physicality of the Blessed Mother, something that can be associated with the “Madonna of Humility”, an iconographic tradition depicting Mary with vestments humble.
In these two representations, the spectators are invited to meditate on humanity and the sacrifice of the Blessed Mother. In the nursing Madonnas particular emphasis is placed on the nursing gift of the Blessed Mother, a symbol not only of her motherhood of Christ, but also of the nursing aspect of the Virgin Mary’s love for believers. . Moreover, art historians believe that these sets of paintings were intended to highlight the close connection between the milk of the Blessed Mother and the blood of Christ.
Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci
Among the great masters who worked on the subject are Raphael and (probably) Leonardo. A 15th-century painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg shows the Madonna gazing lovingly at the Christ Child, who in turn gazes poignantly at the viewer while a goldfinch, symbol of her future Passion, stands between mother and child. Raphael’s works of this differ from previous examples, as the Madonna is not depicted while nursing but simply in the act of holding the Christ Child. Yet many consider some of these paintings, such as the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna of 1508 housed in the National Gallery in London, to be a “Madonna Lactans”.
Over the centuries, the Madonna Lactans has become a popular source of inspiration for believers praying for the design. In the Spanish-speaking world, “Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto”, literally Our Lady of Milk and Good Childbirth, inspired the prayers of those trying to conceive. Expectant parents in Italy often visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Milk in Guanzate, near Como. In Israel, the Milk Grotto, built on the spot where, according to tradition, a drop of milk was spilled from the body of the Virgin, whitening the floor of the chapel, attracts people from all over the world in search of help to procreate. And in Florida, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Milk, built by the Spanish in 1620 in St. Augustine, served a similar purpose, with thousands of people traveling from across the country to try to conceive.
While the Madonna Lactans has been increasingly abandoned by artists following a decision by the Council of Trent regarding the appropriateness of certain religious depictions, the concept of Mary as a sacrificial and nurturing mother still inspires people around the world.