Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Magaret Miles, "God's Love, Mother's Milk"

In this week's Christian century, Margaret Miles writes on the significance of paintings of the nursing Virgin in 14thC Tuscany:

For medieval and early modern people the breast was anything but an abstract symbol. In societies that lacked refrigeration and in which animal milk was thought to foster stupidity in the infant who imbibed it, almost all people experienced their first nourishment and pleasure at a woman's breast. In texts and images, religious meaning bonded with physical experience to form a singularly powerful symbol. Although theologians may have claimed that crucifixion scenes exhibited the extremity of God's love for humans, it was scenes of the child suckling at the breast that spoke to people on the basis of their earliest experience.

Several prominent theologians also described God's love for humanity as that of a mother who offers care and provision to her dependent child, both in her womb and in its early experience in the world. Theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux pictured the Christian's nourishment as coming from God's breasts. But it was Julian of Norwich (d. about 1416) who most explicitly analyzed God's care as closely resembling that of a mother: "The mother's service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural; readiest because it is most loving; surest because it is truest" (Showings, Long text 59).

But by 1750 the public meaning of breasts was "largely medical or erotic." After 1750 she has not been able to find a single religious image of the breast. The crucifixion scene represents God's love for humanity. She muses on loss of the earlier image:

The value of the nursing breast as a symbol of God's provision might need to be reconsidered in our own time, a time in which the technological capacity for, and interest in, objectifying women's bodies contributes to eating disorders among young women as well as to rape. Understanding the complex social, religious and technological factors that resulted in the eclipse of the nursing Virgin could prepare the way for a critical recovery of this symbol. 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.

Her book, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750, is just out from the University of California Press.


Julie said...

The first time I took my daughter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, she was about 3 1/2 years old. She was still nursing once or twice a day, mostly as a way to connect with me and feel loved. As we walked through the Met, she noticed every painting and every statue that included a nursing mother and her baby. Surprisingly, there are a TON of images of nursing moms and babies in the Met! And many, if not most, of them were images of Mary and Jesus. It was a wonderful experience to see the Met through the eyes of my little girl as she found all the instances of mother and baby bonding.

Deirdre said...

That is a wonderful comment, Julie. Thanks so much!

Margaret Miles might comment that this is exactly the affinity created by images of "Maria lactans" in the viewers evoking direct experience of God's love!

It would be interesting to note if these images disappear at any point in the Met's collection of art.

tsai tompkins said...

My Old Testament professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Dr. Beth Tanner, told us that one of the translations for the OT term for God, El Shaddai, was "the god with breasts"... It was very affirming to have a female image of God from the OT to balance out the image of God as predominantly male and interested in conquest and punishment.

I remember thinking that this discovery of an OT precedent for female imagery for God only strengthened any NT claims for female imagery. It was energizing for this female (heading towards ordination in the Episcopal Church) to know that from the beginning God was both male and female, despite what some of my colleagues continued to assert...

artylin said...

I am an artist and in seminary. I loved this articcle because I ahve been working for the past year on a series of Madonnas in mixed media. I have gone through a troubling time on my journey concerning the nature of GOd and I feel the anser or a portion of it was right at my fingertips as I worked. I want to do dome more research imto the image of MAry as refeltion of GOd's love for humanity and I am not many resources. ANy suggestions? Linda

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