Even as a Jew I’ve been to my fair share of churches. I’ve visited the holy Vatican, the unique Sagrada Familia and the austere Norte Dame. I was even lucky enough to touch a vial of Christ’s blood in Brussels. And I have to admit, I am always a little intimidated by the architecture and baffled by the iconography in these places. In terms of the daunting grandeur of churches, the architects deliberately make me feel insecure. Churches want you to feel small when you enter because Jesus is great, yada yada yada.
What confuses me even more are the overwhelming images of a dying man on some wood and a bunch of old white guys in robes covering the walls. But, I’ll be honest, I know nothing about that. What I really want to talk about is the Italian trend in the late 14th century of painting the Virgin Mary with one bare breast exposed.
Take a look at these images, it is as if the artists had never seen a woman’s breast before. Her boob is a perfectly circular attached appendage. Either the Virgin Mary just got terrible plastic surgery or something else is going on. Medieval Art Historian Margaret Miles cracked the code. During this time in history there was a great famine in Italy and the Church wanted mothers to start breastfeeding their own children. Basically, these images served as propaganda to control women’s bodies.
It was typical for upper class families to hire a wet nurse to breastfeed their children. These wet nurses were typically poor and the Church didn’t want the milk of these women feeding the future sons of God. They also wanted to provide hope to the people that faithful Christians would be able to nourish their offspring. Since these women were often illiterate, the visual culture in the Church served as a guide to the people. Thus, the men in charge commissioned these works to show that even the divine Virgin Mary nursed baby Jesus, so you should nurse your babies too. God gave you the ability to feed your child so don’t fear this time of hunger.
This is an early example of how men try to control women’s bodies. I cannot help but relate these works to the current debate over abortion. Hundreds of years ago the Church wanted us to breastfeed so they painted these bizarre works, now they are telling us we cannot choose when to have children. These images function the same way as the grotesque fetuses people put on the side of trucks to campaign that abortion is murder. Admittedly there are plenty of women that are part of the anti-abortion campaign, however I think it is fair to say that the Church, which is governed by men, dominates the rhetoric.
I’ll end by explaining how these nude Marys are not pornographic. Mary’s exposed breast is not erotic and isn’t even intended to look natural. It is clear from the way Mary’s body is depicted that her one perky breast is simply an added appendage. These religious images are not the same as a penthouse magazine. Finally, I want to make clear that I do not intend to attack the church in anyway with this article, I just wanted to share some culture and show how art matters.