13 December 2010



"Dei Mater Alma": iconography of the Virgin of milk

D. Ricardo Fernández Gracia.
Dept. of History of Art. University of Navarra

The speech was divided into two parts. The first part was based on the second verse of the Ave maris Stella -a Latin hymn sung in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Catholic Church on Marian feasts, specifically at Vespers- which says: Dei Mater Alma and thus proclaims the Virgin as the nourishing soul of God. The second takes another verse from another stanza of the same hymn which sings to Mary: Monstra te esse matrem.

A topic of the cycle of Christ's infancy, that of his upbringing, would be transformed over time to give way to more elaborate compositions in which milk would become synonymous with the graces of the Mother of believers.

The Virgin of the Milk is a very old topic which originates in the earliest expressions of Christian art, in the 4th century AD. development This representation of the Virgin Mary breast-feeding the Christ Child was widely used throughout the Middle Ages average and even more intensely from the Renaissance onwards. From the mid-14th century onwards, artists gave religious figures a more human character, emphasising pain in the scenes of the Passion or, in the particular case of Mary, exalting her maternal feelings, presenting her more naturally as a mother. Throughout the last centuries of the Age average the Virgin of the Milk, depicted alone or with numerous symbols in keeping with the prevailing Nominalism, in the passage of the Flight into Egypt, or with musical angels, abandoned her hieratic, frontal posture for a more natural attitude, as a sign of greater humanity. B Representations of the Virgin of the Milk were in vogue in the Netherlands, as in the rest of Europe, until the beginning of the 16th century, when, following the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church considered it indecent to bare Mary's breast and put an end to the development of this topic. Among those who censured the topic for its lack of decorum were Cardinal Federico Borromeo and Fray Juan Interián de Ayala. The former, (1564-1631, archbishop of Milan and founder of the Ambrosian Library Services ) denounced the "indecency of those who paint the divine child suckling in such a way as to show the Virgin's breast and throat naked, when these limbs should only be painted with great caution and modesty."while the famous Mercedarian friar went so far as to denounce certain images with these words: "... we also see quite often images of the Virgin's breast and throat.We also see quite often images of the Most Sacred Virgin; that is, of that Lady who is an exemplar of all purity and chastity....we see, I say, many of her images, not entirely naked (for the audacity and unrestraint of Catholic painters has not reached that point), but painted with their blonde hair fallen, their necks and shoulders bare, and even their most pure and virgin breasts, and sometimes with their feet entirely uncovered; So that no one can be persuaded that this is an exemplar, and a perfect paragon of virgins, and of all virginal modesty; but will rather believe that it is a portrait of some goddess of the Gentiles, and even that it is Venus herself....What has it to do with the Blessed Virgin, the most perfect paragon of honesty, that adornment almost befitting a harlot?...".

The second part of lecture dealt with the derivations of the topic of the Virgin of the milk in the light of the alluded one Monstra te esse matremor show yourself as if you were a mother, a phrase attributed to Saint Bernard. The latter saint, Saint Dominic of Guzman and Saint Augustine, representatives of the triumphant church, appear in some scenes with the galactotrophic Virgin. But the militant church and the purgative church would also be accompanied by the Virgin of the Milk in outstanding canvases and panels, in which imagination and creativity translated the ineffable grandeur of hagiographies and certain beliefs through sensitive forms. In the case of the saints, in order to soften the compromising status in which the Virgin offers her milk to an adult, Mary is depicted at a certain distance from the saint, so it is necessary to paint a trickle of milk flow. In addition, the Child is in the arms of the Mother in such a way as to seem to authorise the "the donation of milk". The graced ones, saints, men and women who collect drops of milk in containers, or souls in purgatory, will generally be on a low (human) plane and with their hands close together (the sign of praying) or with their arms apart (as a sign of thanksgiving).

Virgin of milk

Virgin of the milk from the convent of San Francisco de Olite.
15th century. Museum of Navarre