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Maria Lactans: Breastfeeding in Christian Art

Maria Lactans: Breastfeeding in Christian Art #breastfeeding #art #Christian

With the Christmas season upon us, we have everywhere visual reminders of the humility of our Savior – that He would become human! And a helpless babe! Born of a woman to be nurtured and protected by earthly parents!

And as we celebrate His birth by displaying nativity scenes in our homes and making baby Jesus crafts with our children, I am reminded that there is something only slightly less miraculous than the Virgin Birth to be celebrated here – life itself.

Precious new life so full of wonder and promise, generously given to us by our Creator to steward.

It’s in this spirit that I want to take time to marvel at the beautiful depictions in art of Jesus’ first days – and examine why the manger scene has come to portray the Holy Family in a more detached manner than you see in the photos in this post.

Jesus Was Breastfed

Maria Lactans: Breastfeeding in Christian Art #breastfeeding #art #Christian There is nothing extraordinary about saying that Jesus nursed at His mother’s breast – after all, the only alternative in His time was being fed by another woman, also at the breast.

However, when breasts and breastfeeding is mentioned in Scripture the language suggests that it wasn’t seen as a crude or mundane task, but a gift and a blessing (I especially love the poetic voice of Isaiah 60:16 and Isaiah 66:11). God created the female body to make food for her baby. He created the infant to instinctively desire the closeness and sustenance of nursing. More miracles.

One of the very earliest depictions of Christ’s incarnation that we have found so far was discovered in the Catacomb of Priscilla and dates back to the early 3rd century. In the illustration, Mary is nursing the infant Jesus.

The Reformation and Christian Art

Do a Google Image search for “Maria Lactans,” “Maria de le Leche,” or “Nursing Madonna” and you’ll be presented with hundreds of beautiful depictions of the Mary nourishing Jesus at the breast.

The Catholic theology of Mary was often depicted in art of various themes – and Mary nursing Jesus emphasized not only the humility of Christ become flesh, but was sometimes symbolic of the Church’s life-giving and sustaining role for the world.

Maria Lactans: Breastfeeding in Christian Art #breastfeeding #art #Christian

During the Protestant Reformation, much of the art of centuries past was seen as idolatrous – violating the commandment not to make graven images of God. The often lavish and highly symbolic art of the Renaissance was targeted by some protestant groups (especially those following John Calvin)  and destroyed or banned. Protestant art then turned to more straightforward depictions of biblical events and the general beauty of God’s creation that encouraged a personal rather than institutional faith. (It should be noted that Martin Luther did speak in favor of Christian art as long as it was understood as an aid in devotion and not something to be worshiped in itself).

In a move to counter the influence of the Reformation, the Catholic church leaders met over a span of about 18 years at the Ecumenical Council of Trent to draw up and institute its own reforms. During this time, the Catholic church ruled that while art should remain “sacred” in nature and contain some symbolism, many of the secular/pagan influences should be avoided, as should any imagery that may incite lust.

Nudity in Christian art mostly disappeared, including our breastfeeding Mary, as you can see in this chronological list of Maria Lactans art. Even grand works like the dome of the Sistine Chapel were revised and painted over during this period.

Inspiration or Idolatry?

My own faith is heavily influenced by the wisdom of John Calvin. However, as I ponder this season and reflect on this art from the perspective of a nursing mother, I can’t help but feel that Calvin and his friends got it wrong this time.

What could be more personally inspiring than the reminder that Our God loves us so much that He made man (and woman) an integral part of His story of redemption? What better symbol of His care for our physical wellbeing is there than His provision of sustenance and affection given through the breastfeeding relationship?

Rather than tempting me to worship the created above the Creator, these move me to marvel at the intentionality of my Creator’s design.

What do you think about breastfeeding in Christian art?

Top photo: The Holy Family ~ Zubaran, A.D. 1659
Middle photo: Madonna and Child ~ Guido Reni A.D. 1628
Bottom photo: Madonna of Milk ~ Ambrogio Laurati circa 1330

Anjanette Barr is wife to a librarian and mom of four living in Juneau, Alaska and loving the life God has blessed her with. Her days are filled with lots of silly antics and laughter, mountains of laundry, and more love than she could ever hope for or deserve. She blogs at Find her also on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.


  1. This is a great post! I too have been thinking about how the manager scene we commonly see might be very different than what happened. Given the fact that the King was after this little family, if I was Mary and Joseph, I would never set that baby down. Thank you for your insight.

  2. This is a great post and displays your beautiful writing and even more beautiful faith very well. Thank you sharing, Anj! Merry Christmas!!!

  3. Actually, John Calvin didn’t have ANY problem with breastfeeding. In fact, he was what we would call a lactivist today. Here are his own words on it:

    “. . .the Lord does not in vain prepare nutriment for children in their mothers’ bosoms, before they are born. But those on whom he confers the honor of mothers, he, in this way, constitutes nurses; and they who deem it a hardship to nourish their own offspring, break, as far as they are able, the sacred bond of nature. If disease, or anything of that kind, is the hindrance, they have a just excuse; but for mothers voluntarily, and for their own pleasure, to avoid the trouble of nursing, and thus to make themselves only half-mothers, is a shameful corruption.” – his commentary on Genesis 21:7

    He also said: “We may add, that by this view the singular goodness of God towards each individual is unbecomingly impaired. David exclaims (Psalm 8:3), that infants hanging at their mothers breasts are eloquent enough to celebrate the glory of God, because, from the very moment of their births they find an aliment prepared for them by heavenly care. Indeed, if we do not shut our eyes and senses to the fact, we must see that some mothers have full provision for their infants, and others almost none, according as it is the pleasure of God to nourish one child more liberally, and another more sparingly.” – From The Institutes of the Christian Religion

    The way that women breastfed their babies in his time was to expose at least a part of the breast or one whole breast to do it.

    What he was against was using the breasts in the way described in Ezekiel 23.

    Also, many Puritans also felt the same. Puritan writings show much was known about breastfeeding, including knowing if a woman might have a problem nursing due to nipple shape. You have to see the nipple to know this at a glance.

    He also had a problem with religious art in general, and for good reason. There are some that STILL worship art more than what it is to portray today.

    • Thank you for that insight. 🙂 I appreciate knowing more of Calvin’s mind on the subject of breastfeeding. I can see how he could value the beauty of lactation but still be concerned about it being portrayed properly/decently in art. I have also read more about Calvin and art since writing this and I know he was not opposed to all religious art. I think it’s a shame that breastfeeding in religious art was sacrificed in the reformation, as it seems to hold a different place in culture (or should) than lewd or sensual nudity. I can see how religious art depicting Mary could be used to worship her, unfortunately.

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