Why Do Mary’s Breasts Look So Peculiar?
The anatomical strangeness that was meant to uphold her perfection
Back in the 13th century, there was a widely-told story called Les Miracles de Notre Dame in which a “heathen” was said to have witnessed two “well-formed” breasts arising from a painting of the Virgin and spontaneously issuing oil “as from a spring”.
At this remarkable sight, the non-believer was said to have been immediately converted to Christianity. In the context of Medieval Christian worship, Mary’s breasts were becoming an important focus for worship and love.
It was not only in Les Miracles de Notre Dame that Mary’s breasts were revered. Numerous hymns and prayers were dedicated to the Nursing Madonna, as in the 15th century devotional song that describes: “Little breasts of mother Mary / shining like little torches”.
The invocation of Mary’s breasts was related to the act of breastfeeding, seen as a symbol of good mothering and nurturing.
During the late Middle Ages, devotional images of Mary breastfeeding the baby Christ, known as Madonna Lactans, grew in popularity as the mother figure of the Virgin gained wider veneration. They tended to be smaller paintings for devotional purposes, often with Mary shown in the “Madonna of Humility” pose: wearing ordinary clothes and seated on the ground or on a low cushion.
Yet a tricky question emerged: How do you show the Virgin Mary with a single bare breast for the Christ Child to suckle without giving the slightest hint of licentiousness?
This was a time when painters were gaining ever greater skills at realistic depiction, giving human figures realistic proportions and using linear perspective to make their images more true to life. With these developments, the sense of decorum around sacred images was challenged.
Could a contemporary viewer of a nursing Madonna read the Virgin’s bare breast erotically? And if so, what was to be done about it?