the pz gesture of the lactating goddess Table of contents

Abstract & Preface

poetry by
Adrienne Rich

Chapter I
The hand of "El caballero de la mano al pecho"

Chapter II
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures

Chapter III
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures

Chapter IV
Breast-feeding forms in the Renaissance

Chapter V
Literary sources of lactating goddesses

Chapter VI
The meaning of the Ostentatio Mammarum
and the pseudo- zygodactylous gesture

Illustrations & Bibliography

Biographical sketch


Chapter III:
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures

In Christianity, the breast-feeding goddess type rises to its greatest height and breadth, evolving from what has been many times asserted to be a simple copy of the Isis-Horus dyad into a goddess with an identifiable nursing theology. Devotional Christian nursing imagery focuses exclusively on the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, with only one minor exception. Outside of the Christian cult proper, however, as the centuries brought on a new humanism, artists gave the goddess nursing imagery a broader context that reached back into the mythic 'pagan' past and into the post-Christian future. The Virgin Mary was not a goddess in early Christianity. It was only through the prevalence of the so-called 'pagan' goddess worship and the continued necessity of a human mediator before the Godhead that Mary was elevated to a hierarchical position in Christian doctrine just below the Trinity and given the title Theotokos--Bearer of God, used also today in the Orthodox Christian traditions. Mary was referred to as Theotokos by Origen (ca. 185-254) and others after him, but it was after the controversy about the theological significance of this title that the Christian Church in 431 ce at the Council of Ephesus officially declared the title, and Mary's position as mother of God, to be orthodox teaching. This only served to refortify the growing cult of Mary and support her unprecedented adulation (called 'Mariolatry') which was centered in the eastern Mediterranean.

Paleo-Christian art

The first representations of Maria lactans are three Roman images of a woman and child (Mary and Jesus?) found in Christian murals dating from ca. 166-250 ce. 1. Good shepherd, with Isaiah?, tree of Jesse?, and woman and child on right, sideways. Man gesturing towards woman, infant at breast, turns to look at viewer. Woman holding child with both hands.107 2. Woman on backless chair with child at breast; three men to the left bring her gifts.108 3. Half-circle divided between three groups of figures: left: a group of three; center: a woman orante (standing, arms spread wide in a posture of prayer or mediation109); right: a woman in white sitting on a low-back chair with her back to the other figures, turned to look at them, as a child nurses obliviously at her breast.110 Catacomb of Priscilla. The first Christian images known of a woman nursing a child, painted on the ceilings above a tomb in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, presumably representing Mary and Jesus, dating from around 225 ce.

Egyptian and Coptic art
The first representation of Mary in Coptic art is a 5th-century funereal engraving (stele-graffito) in limestone from el Fayum in northern Egypt. Mary sits on a round stool with Jesus in her left arm as she holds her breast with her right hand. The image is nearly identical with the Isis lactans image of Egyptian mythology save for the two crosses inscribed, one on each side of her head.111 Similar to this image is a later stele from the Fayum of Mary sitting with two small saints at her side with crosses over their heads. Mary here holds her breast in a cupping gesture identical to that of Isis.112 Two wall paintings of the 7th century in the apses of the monastery of Apa/St. Jeremias at Saqqara in el Fayum, show the Virgin Mary nursing the child. In both paintings Mary, enthroned, offers the child Jesus her right breast with her left hand, as he grasps her right arm with both of his hands, reminiscent of Horus and the Egyptian kings holding the arm of Isis.113 These two paintings provide the first evidence of the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture in Christian art, albeit in a primitive form. In the paintings Mary holds her right breast--an object that appears to be flat--with her second finger on top, thumb splayed away from it, and the remaining fingers below. The fifth finger appears to be held tightly against the fourth, and thus presents us with a deviation from the classic p/z gesture as defined above. Nonetheless, the p/z gesture is here affirmed as a nursing gesture. A 7th-century wall painting in an apse of the St. Apollon monastery, of Christ's assumption into heaven (above), (below) Mary enthroned, nursing Jesus with the twelve apostles present. Hand indistinguishable.114 Illustrated Coptic manuscripts depict Mary enthroned nursing Jesus, with St. John, with two angels, and with the evangelists, from ca. 893-898 ce, Upper Egypt. Mary's hand is on her chest, not touching her breast. Neither is Jesus' mouth to her breast. The breast itself is a caricature, resembling more the top of an unconnected baby's milk bottle than a human breast, connected to a human body.115

The iconoclasm of the Dark Ages (ca. 476-1100 ce)
The image of the lactating goddess disappeared in Europe following the few underground paintings done of the mother and child in the Roman catacombs of the 3rd century.116 The absence of this image may be accredited to the series of iconoclastic movements which took place in Europe after the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of the emerging Holy Roman Empire (312 ce), over and against the remnants of the so-called pagan practices. Officially the destruction of images (declared to be idols by the Byzantine emperor Leo III) was ordered in 726 and applied primarily to the veneration of icons by the Greek Church. Later in 753, however, the Synod of Hieria, under the emperor Constantine V, declared that all images portraying the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and Jesus, were to be destroyed. This period, referred to as the 'First Iconoclastic Controversy,' ended in 787 by a theological distinction made between the degrees of veneration given to icons. The 'Second Iconoclastic Controversy' began under Emperor Leo V the Armenian in 814 and concluded with the death of Emperor Theophilus in 842. Such destruction of religious images took its toll of the remaining Isis lactans statues that have been said to have been worshipped as the Maria lactans as far into the modern era as 15th century France. Such Christian worship of a "pagan" figure may have served as a motive for the elimination of the Maria lactans from the artists' iconographic lexicon during the Dark Ages. Since the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture to this point was used only in two isolated cases of Mary nursing in 7th century Egypt, and since it did not appear in the early Middle Ages, little or no connection can be made between the Coptic style and the following examples.

The Later Middle Ages, into the Renaissance
Other scholars have described the high incidence in the late Middle Ages of the traditional dyadic types of the Virgin nursing the Child already.117 But it is in this period that the artistic and literary theme of lactation reaches full bloom, with a broadening abstraction of lactation, both in the theological and secular realms, applied to scenes that go far beyond the simple Mother and Child dyadic feeding. Since this period contains the greatest variety of forms of lactation, all of which include the use of the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, it will be dealt with according to motif in the next chapter.

The Renaissance: Non-Christian motifs and abstractions
The Renaissance experienced a decline in the portrayal of the Maria lactans due to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which banned the nudity of sacred figures in art.118 What the Renaissance lost in Mary's naked breasts it gained in other goddess' breasts and the broadening of the painters' horizons into archaic mythology. Images using the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture proliferated outside the Mary theme, many but not all within the confines of Christian religious imagery. The roles within the maternal dyad in European art are usually assigned to the Virgin Mother Mary and her son Jesus. There are, however, numerous variants of the dyadic roles outside of maternity, such as Cimon and Pero, father and daughter respectively. Their story, in brief, is that an aged, imprisoned father (Cimon) is being starved to death in prison. He is kept alive by the daily visit of his daughter (Pero) who nurses him secretly.119 She is seen by the jailer one day and, because of her daughterly dedication, wins the release of her father. The story is also known as 'Roman charity.'120 In the examples viewed the daughter has always used the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture to nurse her father. On this same theme is a French painting entitled "Les israélitas recueillant la manne dans le désert" by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665),121 a detail of which shows a man seated on the ground, supporting himself with his left arm and holding onto the woman from whom he nurses with his right hand on her left shoulder. She holds her right breast with the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture to his mouth as she looks on at a naked distressed young child. The most significant variation brought by the Renaissance is the portrayal of abstract qualities as female deities, including emotions and fields of study. The codification of iconology began with Cesare Ripa who published his Iconologia in 1603 in Rome. In his codification of artistic motifs, the abstract qualities of 'Benignita' (Grace), 'Carita' (Charity), and 'Sostanza' (Sustenance) are anthropomorphized as women and depicted with some relation to lactation: Benignita presses both her covered breasts to awaiting dogs who catch the drops of milk with open mouths; Carita holds a child to her breast while two others around her legs wait their turn; Sostanza presses her naked breasts (the left breast with her left hand in the p/z gesture) to squirt streams of milk as she holds wheat in her left arm and grapes in her right.122 Giarda portrayed 'Sacra Theologia' as a veiled woman wearing a crown, standing with her right foot on a six-headed beast, holding a chalice with a cross in it in her right hand and a scepter in her left hand in the p/z gesture. His three-faced 'Historia' holds a rod in her right hand with the p/z gesture, two keys in her left hand, while standing with her right foot on a globe.123