Friday, 27 June 2008

The Dangers of the "D" Word (Part 1)

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There was an interesting article today in a UK newspaper, about the Vatican calling for the return of paintings depicting the Virgin Mary, with Breast & Baby, to the Church collections. The article highlights that as Reformation influences swept through Northern Europe, Mary got to be covered up, literally. In terms of her nursing the infant Jesus, a blanket was put over her body, and off to the cellar she went. It was a moment in Art, where the female breast, suckling a baby, stopped representing purity, nurture and love, and perceptions of shame and sexuality appeared. So off the the darkness went Mary, and off the breast came Jesus. Paintings of Jesus at Mary's breast tend only to be seen now, in museums. The Churches they were painted for, no longer display them.
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The point to be made here is not that the sexualisation of the breast superceding the normal function of the breast is pretty modern. It's to point out that the perception of the female body, and the breast, is a cultural construct, and that culture changes regularly. A misconception always abounds when paintings such as these are highlighted: that women regularly fed their infants in public, as they are seen doing so in paintings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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Women weren't allowed in public spaces at all when these images were painted. Working class women, peasant women, would have been in the fields, but these were extensions of their domestic spheres, and roles as wives and daughters of peasant men. Equally, the lower class working women in the streets of towns and cities, were controlled and chaperoned by their men, unless they were powerful and rich widows, and even they had to follow rules. Upper class women were simply not in the streets at all. Women's bodies may have been naked and glorified in Art, but this was not a reflection that they were naked and glorified in day to day life. They were covered tip to toe in most places, most times. With the entire body being seen as something to be hidden, and the breast no more nor less 'hidden' that ankles, elbows and shoulders. Bare shoulders have actually been more scandalous in more cultures, more often, than the swell of the breast has been. Hair has usually been tightly controlled too, and some of these works are signalling domestic spheres by showing uncovered hair! Hussies!
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Neither were these women nursing their babies at home, in front of guests. They were nursing them in their closed female quarters, if the household was rich enough, and negotiating their presence with male visitors in any event in smaller houses, nursing baby or not. Women were simply not free to be around male relatives and visitors in the home, without appropriate control and supervision. The addition of a baby didn't make any difference. Many women, in many periods, were not even nursing their babies themselves, as several complex systems of wet-nursing and hierarchy evolved in many areas at different time. The Queen sent her baby to the Duchess, the Duchess suckled the Queen's baby and sent hers to the Lady. The Lady suckled the Duchess's baby and sent hers to... and on downwards, 'till the farmer's wife was lucky enough to keep hers, and get someone else's too. Whilst the poor Queen got pregnant again.
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So such pictures are not a social documentary of how it was to be a women, suckling a baby, in these times, not in that sense. Not in the "it was totally normal and accepted to nurse in public" sense, which is how they are often cited. "See," the cry goes up "Mary didn't need to be discreet, no one minded her breastfeeding in... " But such arguments are fallacy, at least as Europe is concerned. Portraits such as these are not social documentary. They are a stylised visual language, where symbolism tells a very complex and understood story of the time. The purity of the breast, the innocence and love of the mother, the angelic breast with its virgin nipple of perfect rose tinted hue... all constructing an image of motherering, and motherhood, and suckling a child at the breast as a sign the child is of the flesh. An important theological point about the "God made flesh". God's love for mankind, in expressed in this physical mother's feeding God's Child from her flesh. He is flesh too, and grown from her milk. Her milk is a sign of God's healing love:
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"Little breasts of the Mother Mary
Shining like little torches
Offering milk to the Son
They are little sparks of nourishment
Through which sins are abolished
Smelling of perfume."
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These are metaphorical breasts, with metaphorical powers of sanctity, sometimes made flesh in their own way. (Vials of the Virgin's Milk were traded around Europe as Holy Relics, and were proven cures for all disease and sin.) So it's important not to over-romanticise what these images say of women's roles, and of how society and culture viewed them. The History of Art is not the History of People's Lives. After all, when in 1563 the Council of Trent censored all naked images of sacred subjects, and started the great cover up, the women weren't suddenly banned from breastfeeding the babies. Breastfeeding just stopped happening in the paintings as a representation of God's love, and disappeared from the Church walls entirely. Jesus was magickally sustained on thin air for the next few centuries.
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Where these paintings are important in terms of social documentary, however, is in their revealing of the day to day mechanics of nursing a baby - this is where they are representing reality. These were real models, and real babies, in the main. These images depict the actuality of nursing, with the women in public view on canvas. Nursing an infant was a normal event in the privacy of the households, and this is reflected in the fine detail in the artwork. Some beautiful and very realistic touches are in them, that many a modern mother responds to.
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We have clear depictions of milk coma and nipple twiddlers, for a start. And many a long and loving glance between mother and child, as the eye ball staring of the infant and the nurturing mother is replicated frequently. We also get a sense of how often mothers just slipped the breast up and out of her clothing, as well as clothing that had laces in place to allow the breast to be released. We also have a wonderful range of ages. None of these babies are tiny newborns, they are all quite strapping and well on the way to head control (and finger control) and some as beyond toddlerhood and are clearly young children.
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I'm no Art Historian, and so there is probably a whole slew of levels of symbolism I'm missing in the paintings with the older infants. I can see clearly that there is a presentation of personality in all the Jesus figures - not really possible in a tiny and delicate newborn. Just as I can see that Jesus reaching out to the breast and releasing it, can be about Jesus eagerly reaching for God's Love etc. But as a mother of a nursing 3 year old, I can also see the actuality in the older child's pose, as he settles on the lap with one leg bent at the knee, and the other spread out. It's a pose I see, and feel, every day. The sense that these are real children nursing, has a powerful resonance if you've ever nursed a child. I personally respond to that, and to the everyday nature and detail of the reality of nursing, more than I do to any notion that this is representing God's love. One wonders if the mothers depicted, would see the mothering, before the theology too? And although it would have been very repressive to live in these times, as a woman, at least it was a repression that honoured the idealised breast, and did not condemn it. (Well, until 1563, at least.)
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There is also a huge sense of release, and relief at looking at these portraits, because of the feeling of normality that I get from them. They depict nursing in a pure sense, a mother's breast and a suckling child. No sense of censure or disapproval. No apology over the body, the breast. No matter that it is idealised, there is just a wonderful sense of energy from looking at all those breasts and feeling comfortable that others are comfortable looking at them too! That the feeding is on display, not the female body (as such). That a breast can be nurturing and is not automatically sexual.
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In our fruitless quest to feed our hungry children without approbation from others that we are indecent, indiscreet and wantonly flaunting our shameful flesh, portraits showing the reality, that breasts get shown when nursing children, and this is no big deal, are very welcome. On this level, the paintings are incredibly liberating, which is totally ironic given the restrictions in the real lives of the models. But they do hold up as an ideal, a situation that most nursing mothers yearn for - a day when no one would look twice at a nursing child. When it would be about the baby and the feeding, not about the breast. When the baby and the feeding was all that was of comment. To mention, or draw attention to the breast at all was to merely talk about how wonderful it was that it was feeding the baby!
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A time when the use of the word discreet was applied to the viewer upon the scene, not the participants...
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For the modern day mother, there is a wonderful fantasy held in these ancient portraits. A fantasy of a nursing relationship free from the imposed constraints of sexualisation. A fantasy that many respond to, and ache for, particularly as their infants age, and the burden of being discreet begins to rest upon their children, and not themselves. For as head control, and Independence emerges, so, quite often, will the mother's breast. The acquiescent 2 months old, soon becomes the squirming bundle of the 8 months old, and then the boisterous and unstoppable 12 month old. And onwards to the 18 months old, running up and asking for some mother's love. Faced with the realities of moving growing and independent children, many a mother has weaned rather than face the horror of being accused of being indecent. These portraits, in their innocence, allow us to dream that one day, we too could nurse in such an unconscious, and natural, fashion. Where we could have such happy and healthy babies, and bountiful breasts with no slurs upon them of sexuality and shamelessness.
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But just how realistic is this, as an ideal? In a world where the female's body is still hidden under the shroud of the Council of Trent - were all female flesh is inherently sexual, could such a paradise ever exist? Well, certainly, the call from the Vatican to reclaim this history, and to uncover Mary's breast in the Church, is a very positive sign. The world is changing, and just as Mary is coming out from the cellar, could other mothers come out from the back bedroom, safe in the knowledge that the world outside is happy to let her child feed? Could we shift the honus on being discreet to the watcher, not the watched? Well, just lately, help has come on that issue, from an unexpected source, not a million miles away from these paintings... but I must leave my musings there for the moment, as I've discovered that blogger has a memory limit, and this post has reached it! As they say... more later!

7 comments:

a different Helen said...

modern people cannot see such pictures as the original viewers did. The loose hair of so many of these paintings - symbolic of virginity but if seen on a contemporary woman with a suckling child, meaning something else. And seeing a woman dressed as a noblewoman, a queen even actually breastfeeding her baby - again a very rare thing. Those higher class ladies who did nurse their own children existed but were thought to be taking on a hard job which would restrict their lives, because it was such an important duty, feeding a child. I like to think that the mother going into a cathedral seeing a representation over the door of Mary feeding Jesus did identify with her; some saints such as St Ita were actually granted the privilege of breastfeeding the holy child [albeit in a vision]; male saints such as St Francis had to make do with just giving him a cuddle. Other saints such as St Bernard were fed by Mary with her milk [in visions of course] and there were images of this. You also get images of Saints such as Francis drinking from the wound in Christ's side in art, with eucharistic overtones , and these disappear to. The Protestants didn't go in much for transubstantiation. In prereformation Europe there was a great devotion to the wounds of Christ and representations of these are not seen so much either post reformation in Catholic art
Can you recommend any reading on the change that did happen in the arts around the reformation? this link is very interestinghttp://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/2007/03/sacred-images-and-council-of-trent.html
but I can only find Cardinal Paleotti's work in Italian and it would take too long to red it all, my Italian's not that good.
You do see a big change when you wander through the national gallery in chronological order, and it's not just no nursing madonnas.
http://laudemgloriae.blogspot.com/2007/12/nudity-in-sacred-art-good-or-bad.html
The Church did a lot of rethinking after the reformation, and many other images just seem to disappear too not just breastfeeding ones. I think maybe the answer is too complex to be explained merely by reference to breastfeeding.
Nowadays yes it is the Protestants who have fits seeing breastfeeding in sacred art
http://www.christian-travelers-guides.com/culture/cpnea.html
I don't really mind if they are blamed for the disappearance but I don't think it's true as breastfeeding still appeared in Protestant art after the Reformation.

Not all farmers wives fed their own children, and sometimes did for economic reasons
Elizabethan Thomas Tusser wrote
Good huswives take pain, and do count it good luck
to make their own breast their own child to give suck
Though wrauling and rocking be noisome so near
yet lost by ill nursing is worser to hear.

The paintings aren't intended to show 'real life', but this doesn't mean that in real life people were shocked to see women breastfeeding
In the next century protestant clergyman Jeremy Taylor wrote
Of nursing Children, in imitation of the blessed Virgin-Mother. [ca 1649]
9. For why hath nature given to women two exuberant fontinels, which, "like two roes that are twins, feed among the lilies," and drop milk like dew from Hermon, and hath invited that nourishment from the secret recesses, where the infant dwelt at first, up to the breast where naturally now the child is cradled in the entertainments of love and maternal embraces: but that nature, having removed the babe, and carried its meat after it, intends that it should be preserved by the matter and ingredients of its constitution, and have the same diet prepared with a more mature and proportionable digestion? If nature intended them not for nourishment, I am sure it less intended them for pride and wantonness; they are needless excrescences and vices of nature, unless employed in nature's work and proper intendment. And if it be a matter of consideration, of what blood children are derived, we may also consider that the derivation continues after the birth; and therefore, abating the sensuality, the nurse is as much the mother as she that brought it forth; and so much the more, as there is a longer communication of constituent nourishment (for so are the first emanations) in this, than in the other. So that here is first the instinct, or prime intendment, of nature.

He rather reminds me of some of the artwork produced for the recent exhibition : - )

Morgan said...

Yes, I prefered to reference Reformation influences, as opposed to 'protestant', as it's so much more complex. It's not as if the Reformation did not form whole from within the body of Catholocism in the first place. And the link made clear it was all naked bodies in sacred images, not just Mary nursing. Covering up angels in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for instance.

I too have become intrigued, and have asked a good friend of mine, who is an academic in art history, to recommend some more reading. I will post here when I get a reply.

And, of course, the range is just too great - in both geography and historical timeframes, to make any single comment on how nursing was conducted in the 'times' of these paintings.

Apart from the single comment that cultures changes, and so to does how we view both the bodies, and the nursing! And child care, of course. And I use nursing deliberatley, as doing the searches I did to garner what's in here, 'breastfeeding' was a very modern term! I fact my hard copy Shorter OED does not have it listed under 'breast' at all. And online ones I can find don't give dates. I have another friend who is a Bodleian librarian, I'll ask her to do a dating on 'breastfeeding'.

I prefer nursing and suckling. That fact that 'nursing' has changed as the cultures developed, is more reason to re-establish it, my eyes, not less. :-)

a different Helen said...

a vory interesting couple of books not particularly about breastfeeding, first used to be in the central library, worth checking the catalogue, it might be in the store if not on the shelf not about breastfeeding but includes some references from letters and diaries, worh tracking down
A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children Over Three Centuries
Forgotten Children: Parent-child Relations from 1500 to 1900 Linda A.Pollock

Am particularly interested in finding out more especially after visitng the Cranach exibition, his work covered the period before the reformation, to beyond the reformation, he painted a lot of pictures of the Luther family, and there seemed to be plenty of female flesh and lactating breasts on display in his post reformation works, [ reading around his works]

There was an article on tis subject in the paper I piced up on the train yesterday
http://www.circumstitions.com/breastiron.html

Only heard about it with ref to the Amazons before, and thus quasi mythical, but it has been on my mind since

Rob A said...

This was a very thought provoking and interesting post (as are the comments above).

Are the images we might see now in galleries the same as those that would have appeared in churches? Were there differences depending on the intended audience of the painting?

P.S. discovered the blog via Mike Brady's Boycott Nestlé

Morgan said...

No, the images above were painted for Churches. It's just that these paintings have ended up in Museums, and the ones still owned by the Churches, are in the back cupboard under the stairs, with a dust sheet on them.

TulipGirl said...

This is fascinating. . . I was looking specifically for any images of breastfeeding in art that may have been influenced by the Reformation (in other words, ones that were not of the Madonna and Child or other Holy Families.) Very hard to find. . . and your article gives a glimpse of why.

At the same time John Calvin (and Luther and others from that area) were quite the lactivists.

http://www.tulipgirl.com/index.php/2006/08/john-calvin-lactivist/

Kate Hansen said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for a well thought out, well written and well researched article on the subject.