I argue that the embodiment of breastfeeding women in the arts can be more fully understood against the backdrop of ancient rhetorical theories of allegorization and the emergence of patriarchal kinship structures. The exclusion of women from the public sphere was necessary for images of breastfeeding women to signify ancient “piety” and Catholic “charity.” Also, in order to assume such symbolic significance, images of lactation had a decidedly non-maternal bent. Milk-relations in the arts only rarely depicted a mother and her child — with the exception of the Virgin Mary and her son, perhaps, but this was a very special mother nursing a very special son whose neediness came to represent all of suffering mankind.
With the emergence of the Madonna Lactans and representations of Charity in the fourteenth-century, the lactating breast became the object of spiritual desire. In the Renaissance, when breastfeeding imagery acquired secular connotations, the spiritual breast had to compete for meaning with representations of wet-nurses, lactating goddesses and eroticized mythological creatures. In the Baroque, the motif of Pero and Cimon appropriated earlier meanings of the charitable breast, but also provided for ironic distance through a deliberate eroticization of the imagery. In the eighteenth-century, the incestuous encounter between the daughter who breastfed her father came to signify the perversion of kinship relations under the ancien régime.
Since Roman antiquity, the allegorization and deification of “pietas” was associated with the stories of Pero and Cimon and of the daughter who breastfed her mother. Other than Valerius Maximus, who recounts both anecdotes as examples of filial piety, Pliny the Elder mentions in his ‘Natural History’ (77 CE) that in the second-century BCE, a column was erected to commemorate the Roman daughter who breastfed her mother in prison. This column was dedicated to the goddess of piety. More than a century later, Sextus Pompeius Festus refers to the same story in his dictionary ‘On the Significance of Words’ (ca. 200 CE), albeit exchanging the mother for the father. He explains the concept of “piety” by referring to the “woman who secretly breastfed her father with the milk of her breasts.” At the same time, and somewhat incongruously, Sextus Pompeius Festus declares that piety, in its allegorized form, was worshipped as a goddess: “The Romans honoured Piety as they honoured the other gods.” In his view, humble and self-debasing Pero had become the embodiment, symbol, and content of “piety” itself.
Already in pre-classical antiquity, nursing deities were frequently represented. In Cypriot art of the archaic period, kourotrophoi were statues of mostly female caretakers, often shown in the act of breastfeeding infants. Kourotrophoi were imagined to turn mortals into demigods through the nourishment they provided. Also, nymphs could fulfil this function on occasion, according to Publius Vergilius Maro’s account of Aeneas. Kourotrophoi were imagined to be virgins, which may have accounted for the magic qualities of their milk. According to Theodora Hadzisteliou Price, “the sacramental act of nursing [becomes] symbolic of divine adoption, protection, or initiation as a means to divinity.” Wild animals or hybrid creatures such as centaurs and satyrs could also, on occasion, confer special powers through their milk. Harpalyce, a protagonist in one of Hyginus’ Fables, became a mighty warrior after being raised by heifers and mares. This story illustrates that not only male but also female infants could benefit from the exceptional qualities of non-maternal, non-human milk.
The theme of a Greek hero’s sacramental nursing may have derived from earlier Egyptian cults, according to which Ishtar, Nekhbet, and Isis breastfed kings and pharaohs. Isis, in particular, is sometimes shown to nurse her son Horus as a grown youth, in an image that may have influenced Etruscan representations of Hera nursing Hercules as a bearded man. In Italian versions of the myth, Hera does not create the milky way after refusing to nurse Zeus’ bastard son and spraying her milk into the universe, but willingly confers immortality on him through an act of ritual breastfeeding. In contrast to Greek art, pre-classical Roman nursing scenes in Italy usually involve a mother and her infant, although starting in the fifth-century BCE, kourotrophoi also appear. In classical Greek and Roman art, breastfeeding is no longer something in which a civilized mother would engage. Nursing belongs to the world of goddesses, animals, and barbarians, who foster cross-species infants to form unlikely bonds of affiliation, fosterage, and protection. Human mothers shown in the act of nourishing their own children are marked as social inferiors and colonized others, while wet nurses are often shown past the age of breastfeeding. Valerius Maximus’ twin anecdotes about the pious daughters who nurse their mother and father, respectively, participate in this visual and religious universe in which the depiction of breastfeeding stresses ritual or symbolic, not biological, maternity. As already mentioned, Sextus Pompeius Festus’ dictionary shows how in the early third-century CE, Pero’s sacrificial act of breastfeeding had become the very hallmark of “piety.” It suggests that worship of lactating goddesses also survived, couched as veneration for this female virtue.
With the Christianization of the empire, a new development began to take place, which attributed greater significance to mother-son relationships in the depiction of nursing. Two fourth-century bronze medallions show how Christian empresses Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta, mother and wife of Emperor Constantine the Great (272–337 CE), respectively, appropriated earlier strands of meaning associated with lactation imagery: piety and female (divine) authority. The coin from 325 CE featuring Helena depicts on its reverse side a woman holding a child on her left arm in the manner of Isis nursing Horus; with her right hand, she offers an apple to another child. This image resembles later representations of the Hodegetria, the Byzantine Empire icon of the Virgin and Child. The inscription reads “Pietas Augustes.” At about the same time, coins of Empress Flavia Maxima Fausta show her enthroned and in the act of breastfeeding one or both of her sons. Again the intention was to promote the concept of imperial “piety,” as the accompanying inscriptions make clear. Piety, which earlier had been personified by Pero, an outcast who dared to defy imperial justice by nourishing her imprisoned father with the milk of her breasts, now became an attribute of Christian imperial rule. On Helena’s and Flavia Maxima Fausta’s medals, “piety” is personified as a figure of maternal authority denoting abundance and generosity, transferring special powers onto her son and ruler.
While a certain ambiguity and love of paradox can be detected in Sextus Pompeius Festus’ dictionary, which identifies “piety” as both goddess and self-sacrificing Pero, the contradiction is resolved on those medals. Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta gave breastfeeding a new meaning by associating it with maternal authority and imperial largesse, of which the coins that bore their imprint were themselves sign and symbol. This transformation was possible only after visual representations of Pero and Cimon had gone out of fashion. The only remaining ancient wall paintings of the motif date to the first-century CE, which suggests that in early fourth-century art, breastfeeding as piety was ready to assume new semantic connotations.
Isis, Cybele, Diana of Ephesus, Juno, Vesta, and Tellus Mater — all powerful maternal deities — were still being venerated in various parts of the Roman Empire when Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta adopted lactation imagery for their political purposes. Also, the cult of the Virgin Mary was rapidly spreading. The medallions of Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta can thus be seen as an attempt to appropriate and possibly monopolize the religious significance of breastfeeding imagery. Just as pagan maternal deities confer special qualities onto their nurslings, Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta seem to be lending legitimacy and quasi-divine power to their sons through their milk. However, the strategy of the two first Christian empresses to promote images of breastfeeding as signs of imperial power and abundance did not win out, as worship for the Virgin Mary came to eclipse their visual rhetoric.
Historians are still debating whether the cult of Isis, usually shown in the act of breastfeeding her son Horus (later Harpokrates), might have inspired the veneration for the Madonna Lactans, especially since the first known representation of the nursing Madonna is a fourth- or fifth-century Coptic image. Images of the nursing Virgin, however, may have developed independently of the cult of Isis. Third-century wall paintings in the catacombs of Priscilla show a breastfeeding woman, whom some art historians believe to be Virgin Mary and her son. This image remained unique in early Christian Italy, however. The Virgin Mary differed from pagan goddesses in that she rendered her son fully human through her milk — she did not confer any divine qualities on him.
In the Byzantine Empire, the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary took a different turn, perhaps due to the co-optation of breastfeeding imagery by Empresses Helena and Flavia Maxima Fausta, or because of its dangerous proximity to pagan fertility cults. Elevated to the status of “Theotokos” [God-bearer, not mother of God] at the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Virgin Mary came to be worshipped as a rather stern motherly figure. Virgin Mary’s more tender, maternal feelings for Christ developed only gradually throughout the Byzantine period, as measured by representations of the Hodegetria in the arts. In Byzantine art, she would only rarely be depicted as nursing (Galaktotrophousa) before the seventeenth- or eighteenth-centuries. One early example consists of Theotokos the Milk-Giver from the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece (sixth-century). In Italy, to my knowledge, the earliest representation after antiquity dates from 1270 in Chiesa rupestre di Santa Lucia alle Malve (Matera). By and large, the iconography of the Madonna Lactans was invented or reinvented in fourteenth-century Tuscany, where her imagery developed in tandem with Charity, both of which enjoyed tremendous popularity. This happened roughly one thousand years after the catacombs of Priscilla were decorated with what might have been the very first artistic rendering of the nursing Virgin, and eight hundred years after at least in two instances, Coptic and Greek Christians chose to worship her in this manner.
The ascent of lactation imagery to allegorical status in antiquity and early Christianity happened within the context of contemporary theories of allegorization and the construction of kinship as patrilineal in ancient Greece and Rome. Both phenomena, that is, the rhetoric of female embodiment with its emphasis on milk-exchange and the invention of agnatic kinship, have to be seen in the context of an oratorical culture that denied women their own voice. As interlocking mechanisms of exclusion, the codification of patriarchal kinship and the construction of a male sphere of politics worked hand in hand. Legislation about patriarchal family structures, inheritance, and belonging was issued by men who made public use of their voices and who defined the transmission of paternal blood as the basis for their hierarchical vision of family relations. In this context, the promiscuous sharing of maternal milk between goddesses, empresses, hybrid creatures, even pious daughters and their — mostly male — recipients in the arts and literature served as a reminder of alternative, and possibly prior, ways of defining kinship based on care.
As allegorical embodiments, representations of women found their way back into the public sphere — as mute and spectral figures, lamenting and re-enacting their own exclusion. Ancient Greek oratory deemed female figures of speech useful for the illustration of abstract concepts and for the signification of places of origin. Interestingly, Demetrius of Phalerum (third-century BCE) imagines such female personifications to address reproaches to the audience — one wonders what motives he envisioned for their complaints? In his treatise ‘On Style’, he praises allegories for “shrouding” one’s words in ambiguity, aesthetic appeal, and complexity, since “any darkly-hinting expression is more terror-striking, and its import is variously conjectured […] by different hearers.” He likens allegories to fanciful clothes, insofar as “things that are clear and plain are apt to be despised, just like men when stripped of their garment.”