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The Milk of Salvation? Constructions of the Nursing Virgin Mary in Eastern Christian Art

Elizabeth S. Bolman, Temple University, Fellow 2004/05

Embodiment of paradoxes and prophecies, shaped by an array of metaphors, the heterogeneous, ever-shifting artifact that is the Virgin Mary could hardly stand further from the natural world. Late Antique and Byzantine authors both fragmented her and invested her with immense authority. Despite her extraordinary qualities, remote from the experience of womankind, art historians who have attempted to interpret one aspect of this very complex subject—the nursing Virgin Mary—have commonly naturalized it. The vast distance that separates women engaging in the biologically natural act of nursing from the social construction of a nursing female cult figure disappears in these writings. This historiographic pattern interests me, and has motivated my desire to problematize this iconographic type, using it as a vehicle for exploring the variability of assemblages of the Virgin Mary Galaktotrophousa, or “she who nourishes with milk,” and her diverse audiences, in a book.

Mary nursing in a Nativity scene
Mary nursing in a Nativity scene, Omorphi Ekklesia, Aegina, 1282, Fresco. Photograph: E. Bolman.

A minor but persistent eastern Mediterranean choice, depictions of the nursing Virgin first appear in significant numbers in Late Antique Egypt. These represent the reformulation of a pagan Egyptian nursing goddess type. In a move that seems counterintuitive to us, most of the Egyptian Christian exempla were designed for the male, monastic viewer, as wall paintings and manuscript illuminations. They read as a metaphor for the eucharist, emphasizing Christ’s divinity.

The next substantial cluster of images of the Galaktotrophousa belongs to Byzantium in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. I have focused on these Byzantine images in my research at Dumbarton Oaks this year. I have confirmed that the Galaktotrophousa fits within a larger pattern of events that demonstrated the fullness of Christ’s human nature, and therefore represents the opposite of the Coptic construction of the same subject. I have added to the known exempla, and have studied their functional contexts and possible audiences.

In this book, I chart not the development of the nursing type, but the fluidity of its varied historical constructions and reconstructions, in Greco-Roman and Coptic Egypt, and Byzantium. My central point is to demonstrate the break between nature, on the one hand, and the social construction of ideas about, and images of nursing, on the other.

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