January 7th, 2010

I revisited the Musée Cluny in Paris in November, a compact gem on the Left Bank, home to the gorgeous chivalric fantasy of the Dame à la Licorne tapestries. My eye was struck by an early Gothic statue of the Virgin and child – feeding at her breast.   I think this must be it:

Credit: this anonymous French blogger

What is going on here? We can rule out a public health campaign: thirteenth-century Parisian babies, like the real infant Jesus, like most babies in the world’s history, got breast milk or died. Prurient sexual interest? Forget it. This was a sculpture, not a painting: an expensive public theological statement made by order of the canons of an important city church.

One serious explanation could be that this is a sign of the proto-humanism of the 12th and 13th-century, along with the launch of Christian universities to compete with Muslim ones. The explanation would fit this gentle sculpture of a century later, emphasising the human mother love of the woman Mary.
Cluny virgin2 Credit: Musée Cluny shop (you can buy a reproduction)

But I reckon that for the older one it won’t wash. Early Gothic sculpture – the label dated the early one around 1240 CE – is  actually less human than Romanesque, with its comedy and satire. It discovered human dignity, within religion, and embodied it in huge, elongated, hieratic kings and prophets. The Virgin in the statue is crowned: she’s the Queen of Heaven, the Theotokos, not an ordinary girl.

What else?  the late French historian Georges Duby saw Gothic art as in part a reaction to the Cathar heresy, a civilised counterpart of the bloody Albigensian crusade. The Cathars were dualists; the material world was irredeemabkly corrupt, and salvation came from escaping it. Why this gloomy creed appealed more in sunny Languedoc than rainy Northern France is a mystery; but still, it was widely attractive, both from its mystical escapism and its realistic view of the squalor, violence and disease of daily life.

Combating the heresy required the Catholic Church to rehabilitate matter and ditch the fear of the demonic forces in nature so evident in the Romanesque. St. Francis’ paeans to the sun and birds are part of this current. So are the great windows of the Gothic cathedrals. The architects were constantly pushing the envelope of building technology to make ever bigger openings, taking risks that frequently led to collapses. The purpose was to let in more light: created, immaterial, and good. In the frozen liturgy of the stained glass, the natural light of the sun enabled man to enrich its beauty and offer it back to God. The great cathedrals are anti-Cathar poems in stone and glass. Here is Strasbourg’s rose window:


Credit: Wikipedia

An image of a breast-feeding Mary fits in perfectly with this argument. It’s an in-your-dualist-face assertion both of the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God made man, and of the inherent goodness of the natural order. The everyday act of breast-feeding is not only reproductively essential, it gives pleasure to both mother and child: perhaps the most innocent pleasure of which humans are capable. You don’t have to buy into the premises of the mediaeval Parisian clerics to agree with their conclusion and admire the result.

I wish there were more such statues in churches.

Dedicated to Alice Louise Patricia Rousselle, my second grand-daughter, born on 7 January 2010, and her mother Sarah. Waaah!

More speculation here on dualism.

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13 Responses to “The Breast-feeding Virgin”

  1. Betsy says:

    Wonderful observations. Carlo Petrini said, Eating is the act that directly connects humans to the rest of God’s creation, and breast feeding is the first act of eating, as well as the first experience of love that the new person has in the world.

  2. sd says:

    The “maria lactans” style of image is relatively common in Christian art, dating from the first few centuries A.D. and re-appearing in a big way at various points in history. My sense is that these images are quite popular right now, for a variety of reasons related to the currently Christian (especially Catholic) zeitgeist.

  3. Marie N says:

    Very interesting post! Thank you for these observations. I wish you could come more often to visit and comment Paris.

  4. rachelrachel says:

    Anybody notice that in both of the examples we see here, the breast seems to be positioned much higher, closer to the shoulder, than a strictly realistic rendition would have it?

  5. Suzii says:

    Welcome, Alice Louise Patricia! Hurrah, Sarah!

  6. Barbara says:

    Congrats to you on the birth of your granddaughter! The Cluny Museum is the first museum I ever found in Paris, as my husband was sleeping off food poisoning at the beginning of our trip, and I was kicking around the hotel trying to find something nearby to do. I visited again last July. For those who haven’t gone, it was built on the remains of the Roman baths at the far end of the Roman city of Lutece, and you can still see the Roman ruins as part of the museum, along with art and objects from every period after the fall of Rome, through about the 16th century. It’s the museum that houses the unicorn tapestries.

    I never associated the rise of more naturalistic art and statuary with theological developments. You certainly won’t find any explanation of that nature at Cluny itself.

  7. James Wimberley says:

    rachelrachel: Good point. Guesses: 1. Mary was supposed to be a teenager with high small breasts. (We would be getting close here to the prurient sexual interest). 2. If the breast is lower, so is the baby’s head, and the mother often bends over to be close. But this makes for an unreadable sculpture. If Mary’s face is kept raised for readability, you have to raise the baby’s to match to keep the pyschological closeness, and the breast has to go up too. 3. Your assumption isn’t always true. See this nice photo of celebrity hottie Maggie Gyllenhaal and baby.

  8. claire m says:

    James, Welcome to Alice Louise Patricia, we are so glad, youall must be very happy. Many congrats to Sarah and Jerome! x

  9. Barry says:


  10. daniel wimberley says:

    In the light of these comments, and the original post, why oh why does anyone go for milk powder? It kind of sums up all that has gone wrong in our society. (Yes I know, some have no alternative, but they are few)

    What a dismal substitute.

    Congratulations and best wishes to Sarah and all her family

  11. It makes a pleasant change for a comment thread to be hijacked by friends and relations sending me and Alice personal messages of congratulations! The best kind of trolls.

  12. Betsy says:

    Milk powder: Because mothers are only entitled to six weeks’ leave from work (and unpaid at that), and our culture is very disapproving of public breastfeeding. Under these circumstances, and many others, powder looks like a much better option than it would.

  13. Sheila says:

    I recently read a novel by a Pakistani woman in which a female character, a leader in the women’s movement in Pakistan in the 70s, claims during a debate with a Muslim cleric that the Quranic injunction to women to dress modestly and cover themselves uses an Arabic word closer to “shirt” or “tunic” than veil, hijab or anything approximating a burqa. If true, perhaps it could be understood as merely an admonition against exposing oneself while breastfeeding? Hmmmmm….

    Warm wishes to Sarah, Jerome, Cassie and extended family esp. proud Grandpa J!