Maria Lactans – A Rare Christmas Ikon

Maria lactans ikon

Did you know that ‘the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary is from a third-century fresco in a Roman catacomb that shows the infant Jesus suckling at her exposed breast’?

The religious section of Huffington Post has published yesterday a very interesting article about the reasons for the rarity of the ikon of Mary, the mother of Jesus breast-feeding him. I think this is one of the effects of the constant Docetic  temptation in the Christian Church – the overshadowing of the human nature of Jesus by his divine nature.

The starting point is a book by Margaret Miles,  A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 that traces the disappearance of the image of the breast-feeding Mary after the Renaissance.

Here some excerpts from this text worth reading:

At its heartwarming core, Christmas is the story of a birth: the tender relationship between a new mother and her newborn child.

Indeed, that maternal bond between the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus has resonated so deeply across the centuries that depicting the blessed intimacy of the first Noel has become an integral part of the Christmas industry.

Yet all the familiar scenes associated with the holy family today — creches and church pageants, postage stamps and holiday cards — are also missing an obvious element of the mother-child connection that modern Christians are apparently happy to do without: a breast-feeding infant.

Jesus certainly wasn’t a bottle baby. So what happened to Mary’s breasts? It’s a centuries-old story, but one that has a relatively brief answer: namely, the rise of the printing press in 15th-century Europe.

By the Middle Ages, the breast-feeding Mary was shown in every possible context, and “lactation miracles” and “milk shrines” proliferated across the Christian world. Mary was “the wet-nurse of salvation,” as one phrase had it…

Yet once the breast became an object of medical and sexual interest, it quickly vanished as an object of sacred desire.

So after all this secularization and sexualization can the breast make a comeback as a religious symbol?

The potential is there. Some conservatives are pushing the nursing Jesus as a symbol for the anti-abortion movement, while believers of a more liberal bent have cited the breast-feeding Virgin Mary as an inspiration for social justice policies. And many Latino Catholics have preserved a devotion to La Virgen de la Leche, a following that could grow along with the influx of Latinos to the U.S.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Christmas cards of a baby Jesus at Mary’s breast arriving in mailboxes anytime soon.

Whatever the obstacles, Miles thinks it would be a good thing for the culture, and Christianity, if Maria Lactans made at least a brief return to church — at Christmas or anytime.

“I think there should be a plethora of symbols of God’s love for humanity,” she said. “Can there be only one way to talk about so great a mystery? No, there can’t.”

Look HERE for a slide show of artistic images of Maria lactans.

Read HERE the entire article.


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