Jesus was a breast-fed baby

Claire Renkin

Christian art shows that the Eucharist is just as much about life, food and nurture as it is about suffering, pain and death - hey, boys?

Throughout Australia and indeed around the world Catholic parishes this year are pondering the meaning of the Eucharist. Writing as an art historian, I want to present some reflections on how visual images can connect women to the Eucharist in novel or even unheard of ways. I shall discuss two visual images from the late Middle Ages that link the Eucharist to female experience. Too often Christians rely exclusively on texts to document spiritual experience. In our text-dominated culture we tend to forget that for many hundreds of years most people's experience of the sacred came primarily through visual means. Although for centuries Christians have mouthed words attributed to Gregory the Great that images are the "bible of the illiterate," recently scholars have shown that visual images mediated spiritual experience to learned men and women as well. The images discussed below can do the same for us.

My reflections owe a lot to an observation made by English theologian, Tina Beattie. Writing recently in The Tablet, Beattie observes that "the Eucharist is about incarnation and nurture as well as suffering and death." This insight is amply confirmed by the visual tradition, not just by the paintings and sculptures of The Last Supper that come immediately to mind, but rather by works that although less familiar to us would have evoked Eucharistic spirituality for their original audiences.

Visual imagery tends to "speak" on a number of different levels. No doubt we have lost some of our ancestors' ability to respond to certain aspects of paintings that once addressed a more engaged audience. If, for example, we think of the Eucharist as the event instituted at the Last Supper, then we can find hundreds of examples of this incident depicted in Western art. From frescoes like Leonardo's in Milan to panel paintings and sculpture, the theme of the Last Supper has been popular ever since the seventh century. But in the late Middle Ages that scene was not the only visual image evoked by the term "Eucharist." To single out the banquet in St. John's Gospel as the only way to envision Eucharist overlooks the fact that medieval people interpreted the Eucharist visually in ways that went beyond the Gospel account. Their breadth of imagination can help to liberate our thinking about this sacrament.

My first example comes from one of the most popular themes in late medieval art, the Madonna Lactans, i.e. the Virgin breast-feeding. The theme itself derives from Byzantine art and is quite ancient. It was probably introduced into the West around the 12th century and became a staple both in churches and in images for private devotion. The exterior of this statue, carved in Cologne around 1300, shows the Virgin seated holding the Christ Child on her left arm. She is gilded, an indication of the reverence and esteem for the Mother of God. Although the Child turns his face towards her, he is in fact breast-feeding. The Virgin has a rather odd-shaped breast that sits on her chest like an awkward appendage. Later images of the Madonna Lactans depict the action of breast-feeding in a more naturalistic manner.

Why was the Breast-Feeding Madonna such a popular and beloved image? Of course it epitomises tenderness between mother and child, but this sweetly intimate scene would have conveyed to its original audience Eucharistic meaning as well. The scene of a mother breast-feeding signified not just maternal nurturing. More fundamentally it evoked life-giving succour, for in those days only breast-milk could assure a child's survival. So this is an image that represents life-giving sharing of a mother's own flesh and blood. And I say blood because according to medieval medical theory a mother literally imparted her own blood to her child. In the Middle Ages it was thought that a child derived its flesh solely from the mother. In addition it was believed that the very blood that had fed the child in utero was converted into milk in the mother's breast. Thus it was believed that a child's flesh not only grew from that of the mother in the womb, but continued to be fed by the mother's blood from the breast.

Thus Christians believed that Jesus had received his flesh - i.e. his humanity - from his mother the Virgin. Inevitably images of the Virgin breast-feeding not only reminded viewers of the flesh that this mother and son shared but also recalled how the Virgin's blood had fed her infant son. And that life-giving image of course is a highly potent Eucharistic idea. For the Virgin's blood in the womb became her son's blood, and her milk, being a form of her blood, became indistinguishable from the blood of Christ. The Virgin's milk symbolises the blood of the Saviour. And who in late medieval society would most readily have welcomed this imagery? Women of course. Images of breast-feeding, nurturing and succour would have evoked women's own experience as participants in Eucharist in ways that abstract theology could hardly hope to do. The same may well be true today.

This statue of the Madonna Lactans belongs to a type of statue known as a vierge ouvrant, "i.e. a Virgin who opens." Popular throughout Northern Europe in the Late Middle Ages, a handful of these objects survive in various art museums. The interior of the statue discussed above has a surprise in store for us. Inside it we discover yet another way in which an image could make the Eucharist palpable for women. The sculpture has an opening that runs down the front, so that it is designed to be opened. Revealed within is what remains of one of the most ingenious and compelling images of the Incarnation and Redemption.

Seated quite literally within the body of the Virgin is a figure of the Trinity: the Father is seated, holding in his hands a cross, but unfortunately the figure of Christ has been lost, as has the dove. Here indeed is the mystery of God made flesh. And the statue tells us that the saving flesh came from a woman. Here the "fruit of her womb" rests literally inside her body. To reinforce the message, painted scenes on the inner wings of the valves show incidents from the Infancy of Jesus. It has been suggested that these statues were used to store the consecrated host. Many of these vierges ouvrantes open to scenes of the Redemption but in fact never contained the carved body of Christ. Instead the body was placed there in the form of the Host. We know that the statues stood on altars or were displayed in people's homes as objects of private devotion.

As a second example, I shall consider an image that expands even more dramatically the ways in which we might think about the Eucharist. This image comes from a twelfth-century manuscript. It depicts the scene from Matthew 26:13 and Luke 7:36-47 which describes the unknown woman who comes to the house of Simon the Leper (in Mathew) or of the Pharisee (in Luke) and there anoints Christ's head (in Matthew) or washes his feet (in Luke). In Matthew the scene is narrated just before the Last Supper. Although textual scholars do not associate this passage with the Eucharist, visual images show us a woman displaying the very kind of self-giving love that underlies the Eucharist.

It is crucial for this analogy that in both Matthew and Luke the anonymous woman performs her action in the context of a meal. Furthermore her act marks the only time in the Gospel narratives when Jesus allows himself to be ministered to. He does so in a highly symbolic way, for the woman's actions supply if you like a mirror image of Jesus washing the disciples' feet at the Last Supper. At the House of the Pharisee in Luke the disciples denounce as wasteful the outpouring of ointment. In the face of their indignation the woman demonstrates a love that is profligate, and Jesus rebukes the disciples for not honouring her generosity. Moreover, Luke identifies the woman explicitly as a sinner. As a result of her actions of anointing and washing - gestures that involve physical and sensual intimacy between man and woman - she is forgiven by Jesus for her sins.

At the climax Matthew has Jesus proclaim, "Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." Surely the fact that Jesus's command anticipates his charge to the apostles at the Last Supper to "do this in memory of me" is no accident. In this scene as in that of the Last Supper we are called to join the Apostles in witnessing acts of love that heal, sustain and yet ask for nothing in return. The image known to art historians as "The Woman in the House of the Pharisee" helps us to discern echoes within the New Testament between male and female acts of self-giving that we might otherwise overlook. Visual images of the scene can enlarge our understanding of the text by elevating a woman's act of care-giving into parity of esteem with the Apostles' acts of preaching.

Claire Renkin is an art historian and lectures at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.

This article originally appeared on an independent Austrailian e-journal known as Online Catholics.

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