One thing about world events is that they span the vast possibilities of that which might absorb our attention. Today we focus on an aspect of the religious art world: sensibilities and how they can transform over time. Images of Mary the Galaktotrophousa (Mary the Milk Giver) have had an unusual history among Christians.
Fr. Orthohippo March 2, 2011
Read on –
The following quote comes from the UK’s Daily Mail, online edition:
… The official newspaper of the Holy See has declared it is time to undo four centuries of church disapproval of traditional representations of Mary as an earthy, fleshy mother doting on her newborn son. …
The latest edition of L’Osservatore Romano ran two articles by respected art critics who said that for nearly 1,500 years the Madonna was portrayed partly clothed and shamelessly nursing the Christ child.
One of them blamed Protestant prudes for changing the trends in religious art that then led to the Virgin being covered up and left critics wondering if the infant Jesus was bottle-fed instead.
Such currents were so strong that even the nudes in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel were covered up in fear of giving offence, and today the best places to see pictures of Mary nursing Jesus are not churches but major art galleries housing collections of Renaissance paintings.
But the hugely influential newspaper – which is often seen as having the support of the Pope – has now called for the “artistic and spiritual rehabilitation” of “loving and tender” images of Mary breast-feeding. …
Father Enrico dal Covolo, a professor of classic and Christian literature in Rome, said: “The Virgin Mary who nurses her son Jesus is one of the most eloquent signs that the word of God truly and undoubtedly became flesh.”
About now many of you are thinking, “oh those liberal Catholics are at it again.” But, in this case it is not so. It may surprise you who are Orthodox to know that, particularly among the Coptic Orthodox, but most certainly among all the Orthodox, there exist icons of Mary Galaktotrophousa, that is, Mary the Milk-giver. The even more surprising fact is that it was very common for the many of the cells of Coptic male monks to have that icon in their cell, and for Coptic monastery churches to have them on their walls. This is not surprising since the icon began to appear in numbers in Late Antique Egypt. Are you surprised yet? Icons of that type are still easily available for those who wish to buy them.
The icon gains in popularity again in Byzantium in the 12th through 14th centuries. And, in fact, the Catholic priest was half right. Among the Coptic Orthodox, the Galaktotrophousa is seen as a symbol of the divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. The Theotokos symbolizes the God who will never stop giving of himself for our sake. Interestingly enough, in later Byzantium it reverses, and there is no doubt that in those centuries it speaks of the humanity of Christ. That is, he was truly human to the point that he was breast-fed as a baby, and needed that milk in order to survive. The icon is a guarantee that he lived and died as a human, and thus we can grow into the likeness of God.
But, in neither the Coptic milieu, to this day, nor in the Byzantine milieu of that time, was this ever thought of as a sensuous icon. It awaits the Protestant Reformation for this type of depiction to somehow be thought of as sensuous and mildly “dirty.” The Reformation clamped down on anything that they saw as being sexual or titillating. In the long run, this led to an over-emphasis on a type of prudery that is not in line with historical Christianity, as L’Osservatore Romano points out.