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Nursing Mother in Art

Nursing Mother in Art

Q: What is the History of Christian art showing the Virgin Mary suckling the Infant Jesus?

A: The image of Mary suckling the baby Jesus is referred to as Maria lactans. Though not exactly a very common representation of the Madonna, it did have periods of relative fame.

At one time erroneously attributed to pagan Egyptian origins (based on the Isis-Horus relationship), this type of representation has most certainly developed from depictions of the adoration of the Magi, as early as the late fourth century (Museo Nazionale, Roma). The type of the Galaktotrophusa (suckling mother) was popular among Egyptian Christians but rare in Byzantium (Medinet el-Fajum, late fourth century). It is only later that the suckling mother becomes the enthroned Madonna sitting in the midst of the apostles.

The representation of Maria lactans remains exceptionally rare until the thirteenth century (see, for example, stone-relief of Maria lactans according to Dom Rupert, 1170-80, Liege, Belgium), when theology and art shifted from a more spiritual viewpoint about God, Christ and holy persons to the contemplation of the humanness of Christ and consequently, the illustration of Christ's and Mary's human history. The type of Maria lactans is a consequence of this shift.

This artistic motif will be popular during the following centuries until the sixteenth century when it disappears to resurface in the eighteenth century in connection with the so-called fountain of life representations (Mary is depicted as fountain of life whose breasts pour out the water of life).

Some of the very well known Maria lactans representations are: Simone Martini's Madonna del Latte, Siena 1330; Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Madonna del Latte, Siena, 1330-35; several Flemish artists of the early fifteenth century. The best known illustration of the Maria lactans type is from the master of Flemalle (1430), the so-called "salting Madonna".

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