Breastfeeding & the Multi-tasking Virgin Mary

I wasn’t planning on writing a post today, until I stumbled across PhDinParenting’s post about celebrating a secular Christmas from 2008.   It got me thinking that whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it’s a wonderful time to reflect on  joy, peace and giving.  

It also got me thinking about the many paintings of Mary nursing baby and toddler Jesus through the centuries.  Some breastfeeding advocates like to remind new and expecting mothers, friends and family members that Jesus was breastfed too, as a way of saying “well, if it was best for Jesus, it should best for us”.  Unfortunately I don’t think that is a particularly compelling argument.   All human behaviors have to be seen in their cultural context, and I can imagine the retort, “yeah, well, people rode donkeys back then, too”.   Regardless of religion, it is very easy for popular culture to dismiss breastfeeding 2000 years ago because after all we are so advanced now and have made so much progress  (only a faint note of sarcasm:  I do think we have made progress in some areas, while we’ve gone backwards in others).   

What is more interesting to me about the paintings, more than the act of Jesus breastfeeding, is breastfeeding itself in the eyes of the painter (who was usually if not always male), and by extension, breastfeeding in the eyes of society.   Obviously it was seen as normal that Mary was breastfeeding, because there were few other options, but judging from the way it was painted, it was also seen as beautiful, not just accepted, but truly cherished and valued.   A recent trip through the Old Masters wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art convinced me that painters loved to paint Mary breastfeeding, and often showed it as holy, the divine act of nurturing and nourishing a child.  Art historians explain that painters saw breastfeeding as the “true manifestation of God’s son as flesh and blood,” and even the Vatican called for more images of Mary breastfeeding early this year–maybe to help normalize it again in society?

Joovs van Cleve, Virgin & Child, 1525

This painting, by Joovs van Cleve, was painted in 1525 and I like it for a number of reasons:

1.  Mary is multi-tasking.  She is obviously in the middle of a nursing session, but she is also reading a book, eating fruit, and staring off into space.    Just replace the book with a kindle and you have a modern day mom! I think the painting makes a strong argument against the notion by a few that mothers should be looking at their baby lovingly every time they feed, and never nursing at the keyboard (NAK) or other engaging in other multi-tasking activities in favor of non-stop bonding.   Rubbish.   One of the great benefits of breastfeeding is that you ARE bonding with your baby while you’re breastfeeding, even if you are emptying the dishwasher or answering your email.   If we had to emotionally connect with our babies at all times we never would have been able to tend to our crops, our children, or our campaigns for political office (from ancient Egypt on).   Most of the time, I think that there is a strong instinct to bond and connect emotionally with our babies as it ensures their survival and the continuation of our species, and that we don’t need to dictate to moms an all or nothing approach.  The trick is finding the balance, and I would guess moms have been working at finding it for thousands of years.

 2.  Mary’s boob is hanging out.  She’s not scheduling her nursing session, and maybe she’s letting Jesus use her breast for comfort, a snack or a drink.   She’s comfortable having her boob hang out, and she doesn’t have to prove her adoration by looking at him intensely. She’s still very clearly connected to Jesus.   Judging by the landscape, she’s outside, so she’s not nursing in some bathroom so as not to offend anyone.  She’s not using a hooter hider but doesn’t look like she’d be judging anyone who did.

3.  Mary is beautiful, lovely, tender and . . . .   But, why hasn’t she tucked herself back into her blouse, now that Jesus is napping?  There’s something a bit ambiguous here.  Maybe the painter wants us to admire her beauty, and her attractiveness as a woman AND a mother . . . imagine that!   Maybe we don’t need to limit breastfeeding mothers to the saccharine pose of looking lovingly and only nurturingly at their nursing babes.  Maybe we can see them as complex and interesting, as nurturing and attractive too, AT THE SAME TIME.  Maybe it’s okay to not box a woman into some breastfeeding stereotype, and strip her of her sexuality, just because she’s nursing.   Her Bad Mother says it best in her post from June, 2010:

“. . . I don’t know about you, but I’m much more complicated than that. And I like my boobs in a whole variety of ways, that includes their life-sustaining baby-feeding superpower but also their pleasing appearance (they cut a smaller profile post-nursing, but are nonetheless charming and also indispensable as sweater-fillers) and their none-too-insignificant role as (forgive me) sexual playthings, and I’m not comfortable with any discourse that suggests that they can only be one or some of these at once. And I worry that when these discussions get oversimplified (Bad Tarty Lady With Unseemly Cleavage Disses Noble And Totally Unsexy Nursing Boobs, Lo The Hypocrisy) we promote a discourse that does exactly that. Sexy Boobs Bad; Nursing Boobs Good. Nursing Mom Good; Cleavage-Barer Bad. Babies On Boobs Good; Tight T-Shirt On Boobs, Bad. Why can’t all those things be good? Why can’t all those things co-exist? (An aside, that maybe warrants further discussion: is the nursing boob never sexy? The nursing mom never alluring? Why does the very idea seem to cause discomfort? Does it compromise our cause? At what cost?) Why can we not have our sexy cakes and our nurturing-mama cakes and eat them, too?

I should ask an art historian (like my sister), but I think that Joovs van Cleve might have agreed with her. I think he saw breastfeeding as not only profound, beautiful, but also attractive and worthy of admiring, and this was normal and accepted by painter, patron and the Church, at least until the prudery of the 1700s.  It could all co-exist peacefully.  What do you think?

Merry Christmas!

8 thoughts on “Breastfeeding & the Multi-tasking Virgin Mary

  1. The issue I have with your argument that a mother nursing a baby can be sexually appealing it that it gives credence to the argument that any bare breast should fall within the public indecency laws and that mothers have some kind of social (if not legal) obligation to be discreet when nursing in public.


  2. I love this post! As a practising Christian myself, I’ve always found the dynamic between breastfeeding being a religious ideal and some traditional Christian prudery quite fascinating. Great researched post!


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