The Breast Meaning Throughout the Century: Nurture – Delight

Leonardo da Vinci Madonna Litta 1490

The Madonna is painted either joyous or pensive she is described as the Virgin, daughter, wife, and Mother of Jesus.

She is known to be the most influential woman in the Christian faith like the woman to carry Christ, and she is known to many as the mother who fulfilled the prophecy (35 Goffen).

The image of Mary and the human body in art were at first a symbol for women to follow; To be praised or to support her as an example.

She was the opposite view and depiction of the seductress Eve and the prostitute Mary Magdalene.

Images like Mother Mary Feeding Her Child and other Church like images were made for the viewers to see the typical family and make comparisons (para. 7–11 Beattie).

Throughout the 13th Century, The Virgin was painted as a Byzantine queen, wearing robes, jewelry; seated on a throne; Surrounded by angels.

The traditional image of the Virgin is with her one exposed breast. Which “represents comfortable simplicity and unpretentious accessibility.”(43 Miles Complex)

The Virgins one exposed breast was the most exciting image and controversial image from 1350–1750.

It was a sign and metaphor in Christian churches as the healthy breast. Virgin Mary is the real woman; Created for other women to follow.

Mary Magdalen and Eve represented here as the bad women, the evil sexual object. (9 Miles Complex.)

Many artists recognized Images of the Virgin Mary, with her breast nursing Christ, and these illustrations were the most popular.

Paintings by:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci Madonna Litta,
  • Jean Fouquet Virgin of Melun,
  • Sebastiano Mainardi Madonna with Nursing Child and Angels,
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti Madonna and Child.

These were images that people praised and worshipped than later on were seen as erotic and secularized.

How did the nursing Virgin Mary control women, and how did this picture turn into a negative influence, in Western European Society?

In “Expanding for Discourse,” The Virgins One Bare Breast, by Margaret R. Miles. The author talks about how in the 13th century the crops were low, and there was anxiety over a lack of food supply and nutrition.

The image of the Virgin feeding Jesus, in Florentine Society, became very familiar with the church and for women to follow.

“Symbolic expressions of nourishment and dependence became attractive to the people.” (29 Miles ED).

The priests praised images of the Virgin breastfeeding a baby. The priest would preach the sermon to plead that women would follow the Virgins example, to breastfeed their children and be disgraced for having milkmaids.

A preacher named Jean de Gerson from early 14th century would say milk is not only nutritious but the beginning of a Christian education when fed from their mother (para.11 Katz).

Despite the sermons, the popularity of wet nurses and the topic of nursing was talked about frequently in the 14th century.

An attitude increased in nourishing one’s child, and churches were preaching that mothers should breastfeed their children.

They started a rumor that wet nurses have tainted milk; if the mother might not have enough milk, then she could give a child the milk from an animal, but they gossiped saying this could make the child look vacant.

The practice of employing a wet nurse was familiar, despite the powerful sermons on nursing your baby (30 Miles ED).

Based on the writings of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they had very different viewpoints and theology. Michelangelo, he published and talked about his wet nurse experience often. And Michelangelo often analyzed Mary’s motherhood.

Compared to Leonardo, he was distant and detached in analyzing the mother image; Instead, Leonardo focused on the Christ image.

Fig.1 Michelangelo Buonarroti Madonna and Child 1520

Michelangelo’s Virgin, Madonna, and Child (Fig 1). Is more robust, strong, worshipping the heavens, less maternal; and by her expression; she knows her son is God.

Compared to Leonardo’s Virgin, Madonna Litta (Fig 2). The Virgin is elegant, light, graceful, attentive, motherly, joyful, and engaged in her motherhood (64 Goffen).

Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michelangelo both drank from the breast of a wet nurse (36 Goffen).

Fig.2 Leonardo da Vinci Madonna Litta 1490

“This image depicts the best medical and theological assumptions about nursing.” (43 Goffen). This image supports the church’s viewpoint. A mother is attentive to her child. And Jesus looks at us as if perhaps to tell us this is what a birth mother does; feed your baby like my mama.

Goffen (43) states Baby Jesus and his look to the viewer is uncertain. Goffen (43) thinks it could be a promise to the audience the showing of mercy, or to inherent this way of nursing, or to make the viewer believe that they were intruding.

When I look at the Madonna Litta, I see Jesus being nurtured by his mother’s milk. Mary is attentive, joyous, modest, and motherly.

I think Leonardo’s image of the Virgin was used to speak directly to women in the late 14th century. Is this what maternal love could appear to be?

Theologians and physicians agreed that mothers milk is best; physically and spiritually. Believed that milk contains moral and intellect of the individual feeding the baby.

Everyone, including Michelangelo, knew that if a wet nurse provided the milk the habits of that person would show in the child (43 Goffen).

Michelangelo’s drawing: Madonna and Child (Fig 1). The Virgin looks away as her son is feeding. In this image, Michelangelo’s pessimism towards the scripture and sermons in churches might have come out in this picture.

Michelangelo believed that salvation stems from grace, and not from repentance, or good works. His belief was not in favor of the church and was a critical viewpoint.

Perhaps the Virgins weaning the child off of milk, since she is not embracing her child while she is feeding. The child has to do all the work to get the nourishment he needs (Goffen 60–62).

Maybe Michelangelo was showing the viewers what parenting was really like, distant and not as critical, as the church may think; Since his mother never nursed him maybe Michelangelo saw women as un-loving.

Most children, like himself, received nourishment from wet nurses. The Madonna and Child image could validate how Michelangelo felt about his mother. The image was a stretch for women to follow at times, it was an unrealistic view that authors like Miles, Jones, Katz, and Goffen have touched upon.

Leonardos, Madonna Litta (Fig 2) and Sebastiano, Madonna with Child Nursing and Angels (Fig 3). The images are what the theologians and the churches hoped for in women, for Western Society.

But was the Virgin Image realistic? Was this picture obtainable for women to achieve in 13th -16th century?

Fig. 3 Sebastiano Mainardi Madonna with Child Nursing and Angels 1460–1513

According to Miles, A Complex Delight (10–14) allot of changes began during the 15th — 16th century. The metaphor of the religious meaning of the breast starts to change. The image was no longer a maternal viewpoint.

The breast shape changes from a cone-shaped appendage to a realistic interpretation of the chest. Because the breast was painted and sculpted more practical, this
started an erotic stir, which created arousal; which created fear, in the Catholic population.

The Church banned the realistic imagery of the breast in 1563.

The female chest was used for medical purposes to be drawn and studied. An invention known as the printing press opened up a flood of pornographic images.

  • By the 16th century

The only nude female breast was the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen.

  • By the 17th century

Other images using the breast still represented from scripture was creating an erotic stir.

  • In the 18th century

Large and round secular breasts were more often depicted in paintings and not just one breast was exposed, but two huge boobs.

  • After the 19th century 

The breast was then viewed in a secular way and lost all of its religious meaning.

Society corrupts the image of the breast; this becomes evident in the 16th -18th century.

Keeping the breast sacred became unachievable for the church. Since the image of the breast became more of an erotic-zed image and banned from viewers.

Preachers sermons then changed and used traditional proverbs, persuasive speaking to chastise women, by using an offensive manner, to influence the Western European Society.

In my viewpoint the banning of the nude, and objectifying women, caused the need for men to buy, and sell pornographic images.

Since the picture of the breast was no longer the image of innocence and purity.

Maybe, it was hard for the churches to control the delight of man’s arousal. Perhaps, hidden arousal was more acceptable?

The female body became feared by people; Women were a contradiction of evil and seduction. The plague and syphilis were rational fears (79–80 Miles Complex).

The fear of the women’s body helped to distract the population from the threat of diseases. Funny enough Paul writes a letter to the Galatian church.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28)” (para.8 Beattie).

The church somehow ignores the New Testament, on equality and still represses women, to a role of gender inequality. Both sexes are separated and have different functions in the church.

Miles (83) makes an excellent point saying that the erection of the male body was not the ultimate show of power but the ability of the Virgin Mary to present Christ from her own body. For the Virgin provided her breast and her milk as nourishment. And the Christian sinners depended on this.

The Virgins ability to give birth and to sustain life is the bodies best show of power. In Jean Fouquet painting, Virgin of Melun (Fig 4). We see Jesus with a possible erection. The Virgin looks unnatural. Her breasts are round and lack a nipple for Jesus to nurse on.

This painting makes me feel like Jesus is the power-image, and Mother Mary is nothing more than an object, an instrument for control.

Fig.4 Jean Fouquet Virgin of Melun 1415–1481

Her controlled dress and jewelry display an uncomfortable feel. The angels in the background also seem vacant and controlled. In fact somewhat creepy.

When Virgin of Melun (Fig 4), is compared to Sebastiano Mainardi, Madonna with Child Nursing and Angels (Fig 2). Sebastiano shows a realistic painted scene, of the Madonna. This style was favorite in the early 15th century.

In Sebastiano’s image of Mary to a female viewer, this is a realistic impression of breastfeeding.And this picture would support the church’s sermons, by using imagery to encourage women to breastfeed.

Mary’s face is sad; she is preparing her breast to nurture her infant. Baby Jesus needs the assistance of his mother and angels to receive her nourishment. The Virgin Mary greets her child with eyes of compassion as if she knows his fate.

The Virgin loves him with motherly comfort. She knows what to do to keep her child secure, and prepared for the future.

Miles (83) explains that the viewers of Fouquet’s Virgin must have startled them.

Since the 15th century, it was a public view to see the Virgin with an exposed large breastfeeding her child and the second breast flattened. And Fouquet, distorts the nature of her breast, in a high, and round position. And her disheveled clothing pushes up the other breast.

Women would most likely feel comfortable to follow Sebastiano’s painting of the Virgin. For she has one breast exposed and the other one flattened and hidden from the viewer. His Virgin expresses genuine women-hood.

Even though Sebastiano’s image displays motherhood, because of the realistic approach of the painting, would this picture be banned from the public? Since the breast became secularized in the 15th century?

During the church reform in the 15th century Protestants refused and banned the images like Sebastiano’s and Leonard’s Mother Mary, nursing Jesus, with an exposed breast. The church claimed these images made Mary look more convincing than the Saviour. And made Jesus, God himself, look dependent on mortal women.

How could God as baby Jesus be submissive to a woman?

Women were preached to be the submissive sex. The images of Mary nursing seemed unreal to the Protestants. And thus Christian beliefs diminished women to domestic roles.

So the church started to look at the picture of the Virgin Mary as a weak, feeble women and not able to carry her son in such a strong way. (para.11–12 Katz)

Were women now viewed as domestic and weak? Women lost their power not only in society but popular Christian imagery influenced them.

Interestingly, since Michelangelo’s, Madonna, and Child (Fig 1) is robust, secure and detached from her role as the mother. His Madonna did not have a very feminine chest.

How would women have seen themselves in this image?
Would the church during the church reform see her as too strong, even though baby Jesus is nursing himself?

The Virgin Mary feeding her baby with one exposed breast at first glance shocked me. I was shocked that partial nudity was allowed in churches at some point. I was curious as to why these images were created and for whom.

Were these images the only way to influence Western European Society?

The picture of the breast changed rapidly through the century from a right image of nurture and love to a wrong model of lust and erotic shame. The mentioned artists were creating such life-like works, and the church thought this would arouse society.

Since pornography was starting to leak in the 15th century, the only control they had was banning the nude, and partial nude imagery in the church. The church was the first place to stop erotic thoughts in society. The church influenced culture to a much drastic measure.

They achieved their goal so that people would view women and her female body as negative and lustful.

Was it wrong for men to have these desires? One can wonder if the reason for banning the Virgins breast is why pornography started to print? A vast escape to release sexual aggression and desires.

Images like Madonna Litta (Fig.2)Madonna with Child Nursing and Angels (Fig.3)Madonna and child (Fig.1.)Were once respected, “Madonna meaning Our Lady”(para.1 Katz.)

The Mother Mary Imagery lost all its power in teaching women to be like her. To be strong, happy, passive, motherly, a saint. Beautiful works of art of the Virgins role tainted. These images lost their beauty and placement in the church, due to widespread fear in the Western European Society.

Work Cited

Beattie, Tina. Gender and Religion: Gender and Christianity. Macmillian Reference Detroit 2005, Gale Cengage Learning USA. 2005. Web. 09 Mar. 2012. <>

Goffen, Rona. “ Marys Motherhood According to Leonardo and Michelangelo” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 20, №40 (1999): 35–69. JSTOR.Web. 09 Mar. 2012

Katz, Melissa. Madonna, Religious. Macmillian Reference New York 2004, Gale Cengage Learning USA. 2006. Web. 09 Mar. 2012 <>

Miles, Margaret. A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the breast 1350- 1750. Los Angeles: University of California, 2008.Print.

Miles, Margaret, Broude, N and Garrard, M. “The Virgins One Bare Breast.” The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and art history. USA: West View Press, 1992. Print.

Figure 1
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Madonna and Child 1520. Alinari/Art Resources, NY. JSTOR. 61. Web. 09 Mar. 2012. <>

Figure 2
Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta 1490 Alinari/Art Resources, NY. JSTOR. 10. Web. 09 Mar. 2012. <>

Figure 3
Sebastiano Mainardi, Madonna with Child Nursing and Angels 1460- 1513. Miles, Margaret. A Complex Delight: the secularization of the breast 1350–1750. University of California, 2008. Print.

Figure 4
Jean Fouquet, Virgin Melun 1415–1481. Miles, Margaret. A Complex Delight: the secularization of the breast 1350–1750. University of California, 2008. Cover. Print.

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