The Virgin’s Breasts

Margaret R. Miles, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast1350-1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

There are lots of different ways to look at women’s bodies, and our lustful obsession with breasts owes as much to our culture’s way of objectifying and fetishizing body parts as it does to our sinful natures. Historians think that when art lovers of the Renaissance looked at Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), for example, they saw a profoundly Christian portrayal of beauty.


Whereas most modern viewers see a naked woman, we suspect that Renaissance Christians saw God. It is not just the angels in the top left, the maiden running to cover up Venus’ nakedness, or the sad, saintly expression on the goddess’ face that makes this a Christian painting. From a humanist perspective that remembered God as the creator of all beauty, this painting was supposed to inspire viewers to reflect reverently on their Maker’s skill and finesse.

The idea that people saw things differently in the past lies at the heart of Margaret Miles’ A Complex Delight (2008). A theologian who has written extensively on visual culture, Miles traces changing representations of the breast over a four hundred year period. She argues that there was nothing erotic about painting a naked breast in the fourteenth century. Instead, breasts were symbols of fecundity, health, and new life.

Mocano The Intersession of Christ and the Virgin

In Lorenzo Monaco’s The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin (pre-1402), Mary holds her breast out to Christ and prays, “Dearest son, because of the milk that I gave you, have mercy on them.” In response, Christ turns to the Father and begs, “My Father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the Passion.” In Monaco’s picture, grace comes to the world through the milk that Mary fed the baby Jesus. Her full, lactating breasts are a symbol of God’s continuing mercy towards those He loves.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Madonna del latte

In the same way, Ambrogio Lorenzetti paints Mary’s breast as the gift that the Virgin gives to the God-child in Madonna del latte (1324-1325). Miles points out that how reassuring such images must have been at a time when Europe first began to feel the effects of the Little Ice Age, and when bubonic plague, famine, and war decimated whole continents. In those days such full and healthy breasts as are seen in these pictures would have been a significant blessing indeed. It is also important how anatomically incorrect both of these pictures are. Either Mary had some very flexible boobs or there is something wrong with Monaco’s artwork. Far from taking away from the picture, such “mistakes” affirm the breast’s function as a symbol of God’s grace rather than as a body part that can be eroticized and fetishized.

Titian, Mary Magdalen

Miles argues that ways of looking at breasts began to change in the sixteenth century, and naked breasts are quite ambiguous when they appear in Titian’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1535). Neither wholly spiritualized nor completely erotic, it is not clear what we are supposed to make of the Magdalene’s breasts. She herself is a complex – and probably composite – figure. “Mary” is mentioned up to twelve times in the gospels, and medieval writers conflated all of these women into Mary Magdalene. They identified her with the repentant prostitute of Luke 7 as well as with the pious Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, in John 11. Luke 8 says that she had seven demons caste out of her and she is a key witness of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. With a biography like this it is no wonder that Titian had trouble deciding how to portray her breasts, but the ambiguity in his painting reflected a general shift in perception that was typical of his century.

By the seventeenth century, Miles tells us, the transformation of the breast was complete. The Catholic church banned pious artists from painting nudes at all after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and the new Protestant church was suspicious of images in general.Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

In Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1674) the saint’s breast is completely covered, but in the throes of religious ecstasy she touches it very erotically. Bernini was apparently unable to represent the female body without eroticizing it and from now on all pictures of female breasts are either erotic or medicalized.

Jacques Gautier-d’Agoty, Anatomie des Parties de la generation de l’homme et de la femme

The eighteenth century saw the rise of medical science as a hegemonic discourse in Western Europe, and doctors made the female body into an object of study as well as an object of desire. Rather than approach women as people with opinions and feelings, they dissected and examined their bodies to find out what made these fascinating creatures tick. Both the eroticization and the medicalization of the breast hint at a world that is deeply profane, which has no use for God and which does not expect to find Him revealed in mammary glands, or anywhere else for that matter.

Even if it covers a lot of ground very quickly and without really delving into the subtleties of the works it discusses, this is a very provocative book and Miles makes a compelling argument that we should look at pictures of breasts again, and in a new light.

2 thoughts on “The Virgin’s Breasts

  1. It brings a whole new meaning to titillating. Excuse the pun the temptation was too much. Ah, there I go again.

    More seriously, I remember a class in college that discussed at length the many renditions by artists of women fondling the genitalia of a young Jesus. ‘Why?’ Our teacher asked with sincerity. The artists were attempting to remind us of the humanity of Jesus.

    Which gets to a larger point: can we even understand art on this side of the Kantian divide? Oedipus is a sad example of Freudian impulses. Mary’s breast is either erotic or some sort of feminist expression. It’s sad.

  2. Titillating … cute, I hadn’t thought of that one.

    Kant’s aesthetics aside, I’m not sure we can understand how people looked at art from any time period except our own. Our sources are so sketchy and most people don’t even understand how they react to art today – it’s sort of a vague feeling that only the articulate can put into words, and even then we’re using a highly stylized vocabulary. So any forays into “how people read art in centuries past” has to be guesswork at best. But it’s still lots of fun.

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