A Most Motherly Art

This (French) Mother’s Day, discover a tender Madonna and Child tradition.

When I became a mother, one of my greatest concerns was breastfeeding. After all, I live in France, which has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Not to mention the dirty looks many French mamans suffer if they dare to let their little ones suckle in public. So I read countless books, spoke with veteran moms on both sides of the pond, and at one point even hired a lactation consultant. It took me a while to realize that I’d been looking at pictures of nursing for years without ever really relating to them. The history of art is replete with images of Mary – the Mother of God for Catholics – giving her breast to a divine babe. Who knew?

Ivory statuette of Virgo Lactans. Unknown French artist, 14th century.
Above: Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1490.

Any woman who has ever nursed knows what a grueling experience it can be. Running a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat breastaurant for one teeny but incredibly demanding client takes a toll. But in revisiting my favorite Virgo Lactans (“nursing Madonna”) works, I found comfort. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Mary appears with the little Jesus at her snowy-white, milk-laden breast.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child, 1609-10

Surprised? Me too. Because when these works were made, breastfeeding was almost always outsourced to wet-nurses. No lady worthy of the name could possibly spend her time suckling squirmy tots. That chore was relegated to mamas from the lower classes, with their own hungry broods to feed. And yet, here she is: the very Mother of God nursing. During those late-night feedings when I struggled to stay awake while the world slumbered, turns out I was in good company.

A modern-day Madonna of the Milk? The author, Inge, nurses her little one.

In depicting Mary doing the most ordinary thing a mother can do, believers are meant to understand that she is doing much more than just satisfying the physical hunger of one growing boy. As Mother of all of mankind, she provides spiritual nourishment for humanity as a whole.

For all mothers out there, we wish you a bonne fête des mères!