Madonna Lactans

(Featured image: From the 2016 series. After Bernardino Luini’s Nursing Madonna.)

“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” -Luke 11:27

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the icon of the Galaktotrophousa, or “milk-giver”, is celebrated on July 3rd (and/or January 12th).

From the marvelous blog A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons:

“Like the dogmas of the Church, icons often arise as a response to heresy. In this light, it is not difficult to see why and how an icon of Mary breast-feeding the Christ-child would appear in the 6th century, and be associated with St Sabbas in particular. Sabbas was a strenuous opponent of the Monophysites, a group who believed Christ’s divine nature absorbed His human nature. The icon is a rebuttal of this position, as it shows Jesus Christ, truly God, suckling at His mother’s breast. 

“Monophysitism is just one flower of an all-pervasive weed that can has its root in one overriding feeling: scandal at the Incarnation. In other words, shock and revulsion at the idea that the All-Powerful Creator would take on corruptible human flesh, spend 9 months in the womb of a woman, pass through her vagina, and then spend the next few years a physically weak and helpless baby, totally dependent upon her. People have come up with a multitude of ways to deny this dogma of the Church. Another example is the Julian Heresy, which flourished in Egypt during the time of St Sabbas. Supported by the patriarch of the time, the belief was that Christ’s body was incorruptible (before His crucifixion). Again, the influence of being scandalized at the Son of God taking on human flesh is seen in this belief. A number of right-believing monks separated from the heretics and set up their own monasteries, which they named after the Theotokos, i.e. God’s human mother. One of these monasteries, the Syrian Monastery, still survives and it shouldn’t be surprising to see an ancient fresco of Christ suckling His mother there.”

Nursing Madonna imagery was widely popular in Medieval Europe and was associated with the Madonna of Humility. As such, she was often depicted breastfeeding while seated on a low cushion or even on the ground. However, after the Council of Trent in the 16th century, nudity in religious art was generally discouraged, and the Madonna Lactans imagery began to fade from Western iconography.

For more paintings of Mary nursing the infant Jesus, see this collection at ChurchPOP.

“Milk-Giver Icon | Not Scandalized by the Incarnation.” A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons. N.p., 30 July 2013. Web. 3 July 2017.
“31 Beautiful Paintings of Mary Nursing the Baby Jesus.” ChurchPOP. Ed. ChurchPOP. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 3 July 2017.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Madonna Lactans.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 3 July 2017.

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