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.