Various mythologies recounting the origins of the universe, from African tales to Indian fables and Greek legend, present milk as an elemental bodily fluid, a creator of worlds and giver of life. So it was believed, for example, that the myriad of stars in the universe was sown by the milk of Greek goddesses (galaktos). The Milky Way was said to have been created by milk literally spurting from the bosom of Hera, the queen of the gods(1). Whereas the origins and maternal legacy of nursing appear fairly straightforward and its vital role is obvious, a brief stroll through the history of art reveals the diverse symbolism attached to nursing, a symbolism often strange, occasionally troubled and shrouded in eroticism. What indicators can we use to get a clearer picture?
The iconographic nature of the ‘Nursing Madonna’ stems from ancient Egypt(2). There are countless representations of Isis nursing Horus, a theme addressed so often that today’s museums are literally brimming with such statuettes(3). They belong to the most ancient representations of the nursing mother. Several thousands of these statuettes have been recovered, with Isis acting as an important figure of worship in the first millennium BC, a period in which the Egyptians were accustomed to producing bronze statues of their gods and readily offered them as homage on pilgrimages to holy sites. The goddess was therefore at the centre of a religious fervour that spread across the entire Mediterranean Basin(4). Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, was said to have saved her son after a snake bite thanks to the divine nectar that she made him drink. The statuettes illustrate the unique schematics of Egyptian art. The figures are presented in perpendicular planes and thus appear somewhat unrealistic. Isis offers her bosom with her right hand, while supporting the child’s head with her left.The child also appears to tense up or retreat from the offering rather than hasting to suckle. However, whereas the ritualised and hieratic posture varied little from one group to another, it ushered in an iconographic tradition that would subsequently endure into the Gallo-Roman and Christian eras, in the form of mother goddesses and nursing virgins.
Gods are purely the personification of our personal limitations, which is why it should not surprise us to see them used to depict one of the more unsettling aspects of nursing – human animality. Zeus feeding from the goat Amalthea on the island of Crete, Telephus drinking from the udder of a doe, Romulus and Remus being fed by a she-wolf: These are the mythological equivalents of a custom witnessed in various periods of history, from Egypt to the Scythians(5). Research into substitutes for maternal milk (goat’s milk, cow’s milk, asses’ milk, whether diluted or pure) is thus inseparable from the history of nursing and is often motivated by economic factors, time restraints or shortage of wet nurses. As proof of this century-old practice, in 1816 the German physician and philosopher Conrad Zwierlein published The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet Nurse, the title of which alone resonates like a proclamation. In it, Zwierlein went to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of suckling from goats considering the constraints affecting feeding infants(6). It was somewhat like making the best of a bad situation. Over the centuries, wet nursing and resorting exclusively to cow’s milk caused a number of problems, undoubtedly contributing to the alarmingly high infant mortality rate witnessed up until the 19th century. Hence, it came as good news when experts realised that goat’s milk could enhance an infant’s nursing routine, but should not be a replacement for mother’s milk. Thus, in his 1873 publication Physiologie de la chèvre-nourrice (The physiology of wet nursing with goats) the French physician Auguste Boudard explained that it was a method of compensating for the harmful effects of when mothers were often forced to abandon nursing, but that the latter remained in all respects the most desirable option(7).
While no canonical gospel alludes to any nursing by the Virgin Mary, this theme was very common between the 14th and 16th centuries. Artists drew inspiration from the apocryphal gospels and used this theme for the purpose of enlightenment(8). However, the symbolism of the Virgin Mary nursing sometimes conveyed unusual societal connotations. This is illustrated in the remarkable right panel of the Melun Diptych, in which Jean Fouquet combined austere sculpturing, vibrant colours and perhaps even a discreet courtyard eroticism. The intense blue and red of the angels and cherubs are set against a Virgin Mary whose face is brought to life by her milky white skin. Her left breast proffered, she and baby Jesus form a pair that one could argue is just as fixed as the ancient representations of Isis nursing Horus, the difference being that Fouquet’s model was not, or not just, a mother goddess. In this panel of the diptych, commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, the treasurer to King Charles VII, he most likely painted Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress. She was renowned as one of the most beautiful women of her time, closely resembling the Virgin Mary. A strange way of celebrating the humaneness of Jesus by eroticising his mother’s bosom…(9)