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Maria Lactans: How Our Lady Feeds Her Son, and Us

Catholic theologians throughout the life of the Church have elucidated, analyzed, and protected the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. But few have captured this mystery in so arresting, direct, and radiant a manner as the sacred arts. In her literature, hymnography, paintings, and gardens, the art of the Catholic Church guards and illuminates the complex doctrine of the Incarnation by depicting this simple image: a mother nursing her baby. A contemplation of literature, music, and imagery bearing the Maria Lactans message will bear fruit for all Catholics in every vocation today, just as it has across cultures for nearly two thousand years. For Our Lady is, as our Eastern Christian brethren say, the Galaktotrophousa, or, “Milk-Giver” and “Nourisher of Life,” still providing for us the physiological and mystical nourishment she gave to her Son.

Throughout Holy Scripture, milk symbolizes richness, fertility, purity, maternal consolation, abundance, and eternal bliss. The luxuriant Promised Land, replete with pastures for goats and other prized sources of milk, illustrates both literally and mystically the object of Israel’s hope:

And knowing their sorrow, I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that floweth with milk and honey… (Ex 3:8)[1]

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, milk connotes beauty and sweetness as its presence swirls in description with honey and frankincense: “Thy lips, my spouse, are as a dropping honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments, as the smell of frankincense” (Cant. 4:11). Milk also suggests purity when described in the same breath as white doves and pleasant waters: “His eyes as doves upon brooks of waters, which are washed with milk, and sit beside the plentiful streams” (Cant. 5:12). The prophet Isaiah compares longed-for eternal bliss with the profound maternal consolation of mother’s milk in all its abundance: “That you may suck, and be filled with the breasts of her consolations: that you may milk out, and flow with delights, from the abundance of her glory” (Isa. 66:11). The milk of Our Lady is imbued with these qualities of richness, abundance, purity, and consolation by virtue of her immaculate conception. While she nursed the infant Jesus historically in a particular time and place, she continues to mystically nourish the children given her at the Cross — that is, us.

This scriptural imagery blossoms in the hymnography of the Christian East. The Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Mother of God takes the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey” to a certain realization in the fertile soil of Mary’s “fiat.”  By her fiat, God made Mary’s womb “a sweet meadow to all who wish to reap salvation.” In the strophes that follow, the memory of the sweetness and abundance of the Garden of Eden and the Promised Land comes to life in Mary’s physiological and mystical role as life-giver and nourisher: “Rejoice, acquisition of Immortal Fruit! … Rejoice, Thou Who givest birth to the Planter of our life! Rejoice, cornland yielding a rich crop of mercies: … Rejoice, Thou Who makest to bloom the garden of delight…” The good soil of Our Lady’s heart bears fruit in abundance, like the fruitful Promised Land.

In the Christian West, texts of hymns, poetry, prayers, and other literature further illuminate Our Lady’s role as nourisher of Our Lord. One of the four hymns of The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, O Gloriosa Virginum, also a Lauds hymn in the Divine Office on Marian feast days, frames an image of the incarnation paradox:

O Queen of all the virgin choir!
Enthron’d above the starry sky!
Who with pure milk from thy own breast
Thy own Creator didst supply.[2]

This incarnation paradox is characterized by Mary leaning “on God’s strength which is given to her in the very weakness of Him who expects everything from His Mother.”[3] The infant Christ’s abandonment to His mother demonstrates the docility and dependence under the Holy Spirit in the life of faith.[4]

Queenly by her heavenly coronation and humble by her obedience to God’s will, Mary provides the most fundamental and first of foods, “pure milk,” to her own King and the very Source of her own life. Her immaculate conception, her “fiat,” her maternal sustenance, her sorrows at the Cross, and her joy at the Resurrection combine to form her into the advocate par excellence. She can approach Christ on our behalf because, as His mother on earth, she honored Him in giving everything His human nature needed. Saint Anselm of Canterbury expresses this unique intercessory role poetically:

Who can more easily gain pardon for the accused by her intercession
Than she who gave milk to Him
Who justly punishes or mercifully pardons all and each one?
Mother of the life of my soul,
Nurse of the redeemer of my flesh,
[The one] who gave suck to the Savior of my whole being.[5]

The mystical consolations of Our Lady’s milk inspired the composition of this 14th-century French prayer:

Sweet virgin mother and maiden,
Who sweetly nursed your Son
From your so sweet breast,
Make my conscience so beautiful/clear
That my poor soul will not stagger
On the day of my passing.[6]

Saint Catherine alludes to the mystical purity and sweetness of Our Lady’s milk in volume 6 of her letters:

He has decreed that we cannot take care of another if we do not first nourish our own soul with true and genuine virtues; and one cannot nourish oneself with virtue if one is not first attached to the breast of divine charity, a breast from which one draws the milk of divine sweetness[.][7]

Saint Brigid of Sweden describes from the perspective of Our Lady her nourishment of the life of faith in Volume II of her Revelations: “Oh how innumerable are they who have been supported by my prayers and fed sweetly by it.”[8] A hymn about Christ by St. Ephrem echoes the maternal consolations written of by the prophets:

Mary stands by thy side, thy mother, thy sister, thy bride, and thy servant; herself she bore thee, and now she embraces thee with love… she holds thee in her arms, sings to thee, and smiles at thy childishness, whilst thou, gay and smiling, dost receive food from her bosom.[9]

The many Galaktotrophousa icons produced throughout the life of the Church are sermons in color. One needs only glance at the Milk-Giver icon to receive the Church’s word against the old monophysite heresy (fig. 2). The haloes alone depict proper Christology with their base of red clay, symbolizing Christ as fully man, together with overlaid gold leaf, symbolizing Christ as fully divine. This vital depiction of Christian doctrine is even painted on sixth- and seventh-century monastery walls of Bawit, in Lower Egypt; Saqqara; and Upper Egypt.[10] It is not an outdated answer to ancient heresy, but rather a modern statement showing that Our Blessed Lord continues to concretely enter into our lives in particular places.

Artists in the Christian West found much inspiration in this image, producing Maria Lactans as paintings in catacombs, altarpieces, adornment of orphanage façades, and even as pocket-sized plaquettes for private devotion. Inside the catacombs of Priscilla are found the earliest of Maria Lactans images.[11] Maria Lactans earned a height of popularity from St. Bernard’s vision in which he received drops of Our Lady’s milk, as portrayed in the Lactation of St. Bernard 15th-century altarpiece.[12] Adorning the entrance to the Confraternity of the Misericordia orphanage in Florence is a 15th-century relief of Maria Lactans.[13] This image, one among many of its kind in the institution, would have provided consolation to destitute parents while also providing a source of strength to the institution’s wet nurses. Medieval Christians, for whom images were a main ingredient for prayer, particularly loved to rub their finger over the surface of small, metal plaquettes of Maria Lactans while petitioning her for fertility, abundant milk supply, and other maternal cares (fig. 3).[14]

The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing the Infant Christ substantially influenced Medieval Christians due to their understanding of vision. For medievals, vision was literally a ray extending out to the perceived object and traveling back to the viewer to leave an “imprint” upon their soul.[15] This concept of vision is not irrelevant to us today in our own perception of beautifully portrayed Maria Lactans, for 20th-century philosopher Jacques Maritain writes: “The beautiful goes straight to the heart, it is a ray of intelligibility which reaches it directly[.]”[16] So touched by this image, one contemplates not only the profound maternal intimacy of Our Lady with her Son, but also the eternal oneness of the Father with the Son (fig. 4). In praying before an image or statue of Maria Lactans, a meditation might take the path given by Dominican priest and theologian Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe:

The Virgin trembles as she receives her God in lowliness … knowing that God expects maternal initiatives from her. Just as the Son is eternally with the Father in an eternal and loving embrace, so the little Child Jesus is hidden in His mother’s arms in a loving embrace[.] … Mary’s heart is for Jesus the living echo of the Father’s eternal bosom.”[17]

In addition to the work of artists, natural beauty also bears the message of Maria Lactans in plants whose titles refer to Our Lady as milk-giver. Early botanists named a particular thistle growing around Nazareth the “Lac Beatae Mariae,” called in other lands “Virgin Mary’s Milk Thistle” and “The Blessed Thistle” (Carduus Marianus). “Its broad leaves are cut with infinite variety, and their deep and glistening green is covered with a white marbling and veining, telling how it gained the honor of its dedication.”[18] In 1370, Louis, Duke of Bourbon, instituted an order of knighthood named “Our Lady of the Thistle,” bearing an image of the Carduus Marianus. This milk thistle grows in the “rough and bare places” of Nazareth, harkening to the Scriptures wherein the Israelites are longing for the stream in the desert, or a land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the lands spanning Sweden to Italy this plant is found, bearing a Marian title. In Bethlehem there is a remarkable abundance of herbs nicknamed Mary’s milkworts. Tradition says these came from the Blessed Mother’s milk having fallen to the earth.

In monastic gardens, certain plants and herbs earned titles related to the Holy Mother’s milk because of their healing properties. The spurges (Euphorbia), which have a milk-white sap, were given the title “Virgin Mary’s nipple” in Devon and Somerset. The milky sap of the arnica (Arnica montana) acts as a lotion to soothe bruises and breast troubles and has been called in Germany the “Unser Frauen Melkkraut.” The lamiums (Lamium maculatum) “contain white markings upon their young leaves” and thus were connected with Our Lady’s milk. In fact, in Italy, they are still known as “latte della Madonna.” The new catmint (Nepeta cataria), known for their remedial value and pungent aroma when bruised, are known in Germany as “Unser Frauenmintz.” In England there is the spotted pulmonary (Pulmonaria), which has been called the “Virgin Mary’s milkdrops,” “the Virgin Mary’s honeysuckle,” “the cowslip of Bethlehem,” and “sage of Jerusalem” (fig. 5). In Germany, the same is called “Unser Lieben Frauen Melchkraut,” and in France and Belgium, “l’herbe au lait de Notre Dame.” In Italy, it’s called “erba della Madonna.” “Its leaves are handsomely blotched and speckled with white, and the flowers are of manifold shades of red and blue even in the individual plant, and are continually changing their hue” (159).[19]

The mystery of the Incarnation, though not possible to fully understand on Earth, is yet of the utmost simplicity and practicality. The literary and artistic manifestations of Maria Lactans connect us with a poignant directness to this message: the infant Jesus, though fully divine, was a baby who in His humanity completely relied upon His mother for milk. The implications of this mystery for our life of prayer are tremendous, flowing from Scripture, the writings of the saints, the Church’s hymnography, her art, and even botany. Christ made sacred our human life, even the most small, delicate beginnings of a baby’s first food. The contemplation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as our nourisher is relevant today for highlighting the doctrine of the Incarnation, helping mothers find purpose in fundamental maternal tasks, establishing Mary as an advocate and intercessor, and teaching reliance upon Our Lady as our own divine mother, ultimately leading us to her Son.

[1]The Holy Bible (New York: The Douay Bible House, 1941).

[2] The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Baronius Press: London, 2007).

[3] Marie-Dominique Philippe, Mystery of Mary: Mary, Model of the Growth of Christian Life, trans. André Faure-Beaulieu (Laredo: Congregation of St. John, 1958), 114.

[4] Philippe, Mystery of Mary, 109.

[5] Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Imagining Mary: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Devotion to the Virgin Mary (New York: Routledge, 2017), 152.

[6] Rancour-Laferriere, Imagining Mary, 153.

[7] Le Lettere di Santa Caterina da Siena, Vol. 3 (Forgotten Books, 2018), quoted in Cecilia Dorger, “Studies in the Image of the Madonna Lactans in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy,” Ph.D. diss., University of Louisville, 2012, Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 267.

[8] The Revelations of St. Brigid of Sweden, quoted in Cecilia Dorger, “Studies in the Image of the Madonna Lactans in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy,” Ph.D. diss., University of Louisville, 2012, Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 364.

[9] Yrjo Hirn, Sacred Shrine: A Study of the Poetry and Art of the Catholic Church (Boston: Beacon Hill, 1909), 368–9.

[10] Dorger, Cecilia. “Studies in the image of the Madonna lactans in late medieval and Renaissance Italy” (2012). Electronic Theses and Dissertations.

[11] Hirn, Sacred Shrine, 535.

[12] Ibid., 177.

[13] Dorger, “Studies in the Image of the Madonna Lactans,” 78.

[14] Ibid., 128.

[15] Ibid., 143.

[16] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry (New York, Charles Scribnor Sons, 1962), 166.

[17] Philippe, Mystery of Mary, 112.

[18] Alfred E. P. Raymond Dowling, The Flora of the Sacred Nativity (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1900), 157.

[19] Ibid., 159.

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