Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

The Virgin Nursing The Child-Pompeo Batoni- Circa 1760- 1780

I recently came across a raw and powerful poem on the internet which describes Mary’s experience of breastfeeding the Infant Jesus to illustrate how women are unfairly excluded from the pulpit. The poem was penned by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who belongs to the evangelical group ‘Churches of Christ’ which prevents women from occupying positions of authority in the church and even from actively participating in worship services. The poem went viral as it struck a chord with many women all over the world. And I am one of those women:

A Christmas Poem
by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

The poem illustrates the absurdity of preventing women from occupying the pulpit. A woman is barred from priesthood because of her biology but it is her biology that makes her experience more meaningful and personal. A woman who had the visceral and moving experience of giving birth to the Lord would surely understand what faith is all about. And Mary, who experiences the discomfort and fatigue of childbirth and nursing, represents all women. Although Kaitlin Shetler describes an experience with a particular church, the exclusion of women from positions of religious authority is an issue that crosses over denominations and religions.

Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women’s ordination is a controversial issue in Buddhist communities too. There is also a misogynistic belief that a woman is polluting because of her body. Menstrual taboos of Hinduism result in male only religious spaces and male specific religious duties. Traditionally, it is only a male priest who has had the right to conduct weddings and religious functions. Often the only reason cited is that there is no precedent and that it is divinely ordained. But the truth of the matter is that these are man made restrictions which have distorted the original teachings of all the major religions and reflect the oppressive structures of patriarchy. Many Hindu women are challenging the traditional notions of priesthood and some have begun officiating at ceremonies. Muslim women have also been fighting for the right to be appointed as imams. We have a growing number of women of all faiths who refuse to be held back from the full expression of their spirituality and are fighting for gender equity in religious matters.

I was struck by the description of the nursing Madonna in the poem. It made me wonder why we hardly see images of Mary breastfeeding in art and that led me to conduct some research on the topic. After all, those were days before formula use and we would not have survived as a species without this natural function. I discovered that the motif of Maria Lactans or the Nursing Madonna was predominant in religious iconography in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration- Giampietrino- Circa 1500-20
Madonna Litta- Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the work of one of his pupils- 1490

Mother Mary was even associated with lactation miracles. There is a belief that the floor of the Milk Grotto, a chapel in Bethlehem, changed its color to white when a drop of Mary’s milk fell on it. The shrine is visited to this day by women trying to conceive and new mothers who wish to increase the quantity of their milk. There is a lot of artwork dedicated to the lactation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk and abbott. Legend has it that Mary squirted breastmilk into his mouth to reveal herself as the mother of mankind and to either cure him of an eye infection or to grant him spiritual wisdom, depending on the variant of the story. There was nothing scandalous about exposing a breast till the 18th century but later on as the breast became more and more sexualized, people became squeamish about it and the image of the lactating virgin fell out of fashion.

Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano, 1650

Christmas is essentially a story about birth and the bond between a mother and child. Kaitlin Shetler, in this poem, humanizes the divine Virgin Mary who is doing what millions of women have been doing since time immemorial. I felt a connection with Mary and with all women across the world in the simple yet sacred acts of birthing and nurturing. We are part of this ancient sisterhood spanning millennia. And there is a primal priestess in every woman, buried under centuries of oppression, who needs to rightfully reclaim her place.

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis, 1778

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

8 thoughts on “Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

  1. What a fascinating post, and you’re so right about the sexualisation of female breasts. I was a bit of a militant public breastfeeder when my children were small, and so many people couldn’t deal with it. I had no idea there was this whole strand of classic art – thank you for opening my eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I, too, nursed my children long term and in public too. That’s why the poem and the artwork resonated with me as well. I was surprised by the plethora of paintings and sculptures depicting the theme. It’s not the image of the Madonna that comes to mind these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a very interesting post–thanks for all that research. I really loved the art work; like Kaggsy I wasn’t aware that “Maria Lactans” provided a whole sub-genre of painting (also thanks for the beautiful illustrationsl).
    Your discussion reminded me of Marina Warner’s book, “Alone of All Her Sex,” published (and read by me) some years ago. Warner’s work is a study of the Marian Cult as it developed over the centuries. Rather than elevating women within the Church, however, it had the opposite effect, as Mary was essentially defined in a way that excluded normal, biological women (hence the title!). Anyway, that’s how I remember the argument (your post has made me want to re-examine Warner’s book!).
    Along similar but more attenuated lines, have you read Elaine Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospels”? She covers a lot of ground regarding the early development of Christianity in an incredibly accessible way; one of the things I remember was her discussion that, at one time, Christianity was open to the possiblity that God could be envisioned in a female as well as a male form. Obviously, that wasn’t the way the Church developed!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much! You’d be surprised at the number of paintings and other art extant dealing with this theme. I have only shared a few in my post.
    Thank you for mentioning these two books! haven’t read either of them and I’m intrigued by both. I’ll check them out as I find the topic to be fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an interesting subject! As always well written and in this case well researched too. Someone close to me just gave birth a month ago and we have been having discussions about the challenges of the baby latching etc.
      I loved the poem too! It surely resonates with a lot of women around the world in different cultures. It sure it sad that something so pure and beautiful has been sexualized and made uncomfortable.
      It’s so great that we have artwork to support this conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the kind comments! I don’t know who you are as it says anonymous but I assume you are a follower or regular reader of my blog. Yes, it is sad that a natural function of the body responsible for nourishing and nurturing is considered shameful by many.

    Liked by 1 person

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