In CA. 1440, a member of Robert Campin’s workshop painted a curious devotional work of art (fig. 1). It shows the Virgin Mary seated in front of a bench, holding the Christ Child on her lap as he greets the viewer with a pincer grip and lounges elegantly on Mary’s left arm. Meanwhile, the Madonna offers her naked right breast to the beholder to stare at, not to her son to suckle from. She sits in a domestic interior full of interesting details, such as a chalice, a book—probably the Bible—protected by the same white cloth that Baby Jesus was wrapped in before revealing his entire nude body to the viewer, and a round fire screen positioned behind Mary’s face such that it seems to be her nimbus. The most eye-catching detail of the painting is Mary’s beautiful round breast and nipple from which three drops of milk are dripping (fig. 2). Reference ThürlemannFelix Thürlemann calls this painting an aesthetic manifesto because of its new realist style and its religious significance in a culture in which the charitable giving and receiving of food, and of God as food, characterized Catholic devotion since the Middle Ages.Footnote 1 I agree with Thürlemann’s assessment of the compositional and stylistic importance of the painting as well as the framing of its devotional context. Building on the work of scholars such as Caroline W. Bynum and Jeffrey Hamburger who have called attention to the miraculous appearance of divine body fluids in mystic forms of devotion and to the interactive nature of late medieval religious artworks, respectively, I would like to further investigate the three drops of milk that the painter, however faintly, made visible. In my view, they refer to the three jets of breastmilk that Saint Bernard was supposed to have received in a vision from the Virgin Mary, and may have signaled to the beholder this artwork’s potential for a similar miracle to occur.Footnote 2
Reference WilliamsonBeth Williamson interprets the milk drops as metaphorically referring back to the imagined wounds of Christ and as an invitation to meditate on Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice.Footnote 3 Following Barbara Lane, she attributes an exclusively Eucharistic purpose to the painting while also calling attention to Mary’s intercessory function.Footnote 4 In my view, the painting highlights Mary’s breast as a sign of spiritual desire, capable of transmitting mercy and divine wisdom in its own right if met by the beholder’s devotional gaze. Asking, with Reference MitchellW. J. T. Mitchell, “What does The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen want?,”Footnote 5 I would answer that she wants to be worshipped and recognized as harboring divine immanence. The minutely rendered milk drops signal her latent presence and prepare the viewer for the chance of a miraculous transformation of matter, in analogy to the many miracle stories associated with representations of the Virgin and Child since the tenth century.Footnote 6 Statues of the Madonna, in particular, had the power to come to life, either in order to reward believers with benevolent signs of the Virgin’s divine presence,Footnote 7 or to punish iconoclasts.Footnote 8 Also, icons of the Virgin and Child performed miracles on occasion, mostly by bleeding holy oil.Footnote 9 Gautier de Coinci (1177–1236) recounts the miracle of a Saracen who converted to Catholicism when a statue of the Virgin came to life, baring both of her breasts and leaking oil from her nipples.Footnote 10
In this article, I argue that the Flemish Madonna Lactans received its eye-catching focus on her one exposed breast and nipple as a result of the popularity that contemporary representations of Saint Bernard’s lactation miracle enjoyed. I note how in some renderings of the legend, Mary’s three jets of milk resemble rays of light, an iconographic variation that underscores the peculiar interdependence of materiality and visuality that late medieval Catholic spirituality thrived on. The spouting of the Madonna’s milk served as empirical evidence of the potential of sacred art to become animated, while the representation of milk as light was supposed to remind the beholder of the potential for receiving interior visions. In my view, the deliberate eroticization of the Madonna Lactans in Flemish religious art was supposed to aid her performative function as a potentially miracle-working image; her sensual address was firmly integrated into late medieval Catholicism’s economy of spirituality. Here I depart from Caroline W. Bynum’s hesitation to acknowledge the erotic appeal of religious artworks and their strong emotional address to the viewer. In her eyes, “medieval viewers saw bared breasts … not primarily as sexual but as … food.”Footnote 11 Even Leo Steinberg did not dare to endow what one might call Mary’s ostentatio uberis (conspicuous display of her breast) with erotic connotations—which is somewhat astounding given his passionate defense of Christ’s sexuality in Renaissance art.Footnote 12
While the question of nude bodies’ erotic address in religious art is still being debated,Footnote 13 historians agree on the interactive nature of much of medieval religious imagery and its specific aesthetic promise to become animated. Following Hans Belting’s pathbreaking study on the cultic context of medieval art,Footnote 14 Jeffrey Hamburger has shown how the explosion of religious imagery since the thirteenth century supported female devotional practices that were inspired by the evocative body-centered rhetoric of mystics such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Pseudo-Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), Henry Suso (1295–1366), and many others.Footnote 15 Saint Gertrude of Helfta (1256–1302), for example, had visions of Christ after covering a crucifix with kisses.Footnote 16 Hamburger remarks how Saint Bernard, who stressed the ideal of imageless devotion, “would have been shocked at the profusion of decoration” in fourteenth-century churches, even though he did concede for the soul at prayer to focus on, for example, an (interior) image of the Man of Sorrows.Footnote 17 By contrast, Saint Bernard’s contemporaries, such as Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1109–67), exhorted their monks to decorate their cells with crucifixes, such that Christ could “delight them with his embraces and offer them the milk of sweetness from his naked breast.”Footnote 18 Aelred of Rievaulx also recommends contemplating “a picture of the Virgin Mother and one of the Virgin Disciple … on either side of the Cross, so that you may consider how pleasing to Christ is the virginity of both sexes.”Footnote 19
Abbot Rupert von Deutz (d. 1129) even described how he tongue-kissed Jesus after he descended from his cross,Footnote 20 and the Benedictine monk Reiner von Lüttich (d. after 1187) mentions praying in front of an animated statue of the Madonna Lactans made from stone.Footnote 21 Reference von SchöntalRichalm von Schöntal (d. 1219) admits to receiving multiple visions of the Virgin Mary as if she were painted, even though he hesitates to believe in them. Once, she appeared to him in the form of the Virgin of Rocamadour.Footnote 22 Fantasies of licking divine milk and blood off of artworks or of suckling them accompany many religious or mystic experiences by both men and women.Footnote 23 Aldobrandesca of Siena (1245–1309) contemplated the crucifix and tasted some of the sweet blood that it exuded,Footnote 24 while Margarete Ebner (1291–1351) suckled a wooden statue of the Christ Child.Footnote 25 Lutgard of Aywières (1182–1246) had visions of suckling Christ in the form of a lamb,Footnote 26 while Christina the Astonishing (1150–1224) suckled from her own breasts.Footnote 27 Since the thirteenth century, the presence of miracle-working or apotropaic images that spoke and shed fluids was thus generally acknowledged; many theologians advised the pious to incorporate works of art into their mediational practices.Footnote 28 Henry Suso, for example, always kept a minnekliche bilde (lovely picture) of Eternal Wisdom on him to gaze at.Footnote 29
Representations of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux receiving his milk miracle while praying in front of a statue or painting of the Virgin and Child are thus firmly integrated into a late medieval economy of gazing capable of producing interior visions as well as exterior miracles in and for the beholder. Alexa Sand has shown how since the late thirteenth century, female-reader portraits in illuminated manuscripts often depict the book owner at prayer in a similar fashion—i.e., in the act of worshipping a statue of the Virgin and Child. According to Sand, these artworks are marked as “divinely activated object[s]” or “heavenly apparition[s].”Footnote 30 It is unclear whether the book owner was supposed to expect a similar miracle by looking at herself praying in front of a Virgin and Child—which Sand seems to suggest—or whether she was encouraged to imitate her portrait and venerate an altarpiece or devotional painting—which I find more likely. In Yolande of Soissons’s Psalter Hours (1280–90), the owner is depicted in the act of praying to a Gothic statue of the Virgin and Child, while an opened book—presumably, the very Psalter the viewer is looking at—lies neglected in front of her on a prie-dieu.Footnote 31 In an early sixteenth-century French Book of Hours of the Virgin, the iconography of a female reader portrait is fused with representations of the Virgin Mary in similar acts of praying and contemplating artworks in front of a neglected book. Here, the female reader is portrayed in the guise of the Annunciate—i.e., in the act of looking up from her prayer book. Instead of receiving the archangel, she gazes at the Madonna Lactans hovering above her. To the left, the same reader appears as Mary in the Temple, praying in front of a Gothic altarpiece, just as Saint Bernard was supposed to have done before receiving the Virgin’s milk.Footnote 32 Such female reader portraits were quite common in late medieval book art, as were representations of the Madonna Lactans and Saint Bernard. According to Sand, the book owner’s reflection of herself in the act of training a “desiring gaze” and “lingering, aspirational attention” on sacred imagery contributed powerfully to the construction of female religious subjectivity.Footnote 33 In distinction to the modern gaze that kills and objectifies, medieval visual desire is depicted as eliciting an animated response of the depicted godhead—or the Virgin Mary, one might add.Footnote 34
By the thirteenth century, crucifixes and statues of the Virgin and Child were generally assumed to host a divine presence.Footnote 35 Gothic statues of the Virgin and Child, many of them lactating, were particularly privileged in this manner. The sensuous S curves of the standing Madonna were stylistic devices that suggested life-likeness and interior movement;Footnote 36 in addition, the proliferation of miracle stories since the twelfth century taught viewers what to expect. Some authors highlight the erotic appeal of the Virgin’s breasts, as for example Gautier de Coinci in his story of the Saracen who converted to Christianity after he saw a statue of the Virgin Mary shed oil from two “glorious and beautiful” breasts, which were “small and … well-formed.”Footnote 37 As Johanna Seasonwein has shown, French Gothic statues of the Madonna Lactans did not necessarily correspond to the decorum observed in Italian art that required Mary’s breasts to be dislocated and disfigured.Footnote 38 Instead, many sculptures portray her breasts naturally, round and beautiful,Footnote 39 a mode that later Flemish painters emulated.
Like Gothic statuary, fifteenth-century Flemish art served as a powerful tool for the production of religious truth. Both the invention of oil painting and of perspective contributed to the flourishing of a religious culture that relied on seeing as a way to experience the divine and ascertain spiritual truth. Bynum reiterates the dialectic Scholastic perspective that late medieval “seeing” was meant to promote a transcendental form of “seeing beyond” and that religious art problematized visuality.Footnote 40 In my view, the artworks themselves seem to defy such subtle and theologically sophisticated interpretations. Especially in depictions of the Mass of Saint Gregory, which, as Bynum notes, often show the officiating pope and his bystanders oblivious to the miracle unfolding in front of them, the paintings celebrate the power of art to perform miracles and offer proof of their divine immanence. Some artists depict Christ—who faces Saint Gregory in the form of an altarpiece—in the act of descending from the cross and offering his side wound. In addition, they show an angel holding the Veronica to advertise the event as an authentic visual miracle. Nonetheless, Pope Gregory and his assistants focus assiduously on the chalice, a prayer book, or the Eucharist.Footnote 41 If the iconography casts seeing as problematic, as Bynum suggests, it does so by implicitly criticizing Saint Gregory and his assistants for contemplating the wrong things. Had they gazed at the artwork in front of them instead of liturgical objects, they would have witnessed how Christ wanted to nurse them from his wound. Saint Bernard, by contrast, whose lactation miracle often accompanies the Mass of Saint Gregory in illuminated books of hours, displays the correct form of visual address to the Virgin. He gazes longingly at Mary’s breast and receives her milk as a reward. In a unique fusion of the two motifs, an illumination in the abovementioned Book of Hours of the Virgin shows how Saint Bernard is oblivious to Christ’s presence just like Saint Gregory before him. Instead of honoring Christ’s offer to nurse him from his wounds, Saint Bernard is engrossed by looking at the Virgin’s bare breast, which spurts milk at him in the form of rays of light (fig. 3).
Some historians regard this particular form of eroticized visuality that produces spiritual desire as responsible for the religious crisis of the sixteenth century. Bob Scribner proposes to investigate what he calls the “sacramental gaze” as a catalyst for the Reformation at the moment that this gaze turned “greedy” and “lascivious” in a culture overcome by a “devouring passion to see.”Footnote 42 Alexander Nagel concurs with this assessment, claiming that “the question of art was at the center of the reform debate,” and identifying responses to German iconoclasm in much of Italian religious art of the sixteenth century.Footnote 43 Reference KoernerJoseph Leo Koerner, inspired by Reference GeorgesGeorges Didi-Hubermann’s study on Fra’ Angelico, views Lucas Cranach’s paintings as keeping emptiness on display in response to those hyperreal, violently embodied late medieval Crucifixion scenes that Mitchell Merback investigates.Footnote 44 Thomas Lentes shows how Johannes Nider (1380–1438), an early Reformer, encouraged contemplation of the crucifix, but warned of all “evil corporeal images” that might obstruct the (correct) viewing of God.Footnote 45 Reference LutherLuther privileged hearing as a devotional mode—as did Saint Bernard—and recommended a strict ocular discipline that would purge the spiritual gaze of misguided forms of desire. He demanded an exclusive focus on the image of the crucified Christ as figure of redemption to the detriment of worshippers’ veneration of the Virgin and saints.Footnote 46 In a sermon from 1519, he identifies Christ with his image: “There [on the cross] he made himself into a threefold image for us. … He is the living and immortal image against death, which he suffered. … He is the image of God’s grace against sin, which he took upon himself. … He is the image of heaven, who, forsaken by God, as a condemned, overcame hell through his all-powerful love. … Therefore, the image of Christ shall be within all of us.”Footnote 47
Reference KarlstadtAndreas Karlstadt (1486–1541) went a step further than Reference LutherLuther, inviting his patron Wolff Schlick, Count of Passau, to remove all images from local churches in 1522. He chides Pope Gregory for having erroneously promoted images as “laypersons’ books” and ridicules the custom of clutching a cross on one’s deathbed.Footnote 48 He admits that believers violated the first commandment out of their deep love for images, which he repeatedly calls “carved and painted oil-idols”—perhaps referring to medieval miracle-working icons of the Virgin that exuded oil, sweat, milk, and other body fluids.Footnote 49 In frank language, he invites his readers to chastise themselves for their misguided affections and idolatry: “Have we not honored them [images] in a manner appropriate for great Lords? Why did we cloth them in velvet and damask? Why did we paint and color them with silver and golden garments? Why did we decorate them with golden crowns? And precious jewels? And did for them out of love and honor what we won’t do for our wives and children, lords and masters? … Images are ghastly.”Footnote 50
Precisely such “ghastly” image worship was being practiced in the midst of Renaissance Florence, as Megan Holmes has shown, where a medieval fresco of the Virgin Annunciate was crowned with jewels and declared to be an acheiropoeiton (an image not made by human hands) in 1450.Footnote 51 Holmes argues that spikes in the Florentine veneration of miracle-working representations of the Madonna Lactans and the crucified Christ occurred at precisely the time that Renaissance art was believed to have emancipated itself from the strictures of religious demands.Footnote 52 This happened while German and English Reformers complained bitterly about the collapse of sign and referent in religious visual culture and set out to deface and destroy, even “execute,” images of the saints and the Virgin Mary.Footnote 53 In the early fifteenth century, the Lollards had already polemicized against the worship of richly decorated reliquaries as opposed to the saints’ remains they host: “Men erren myche in offrynge to … ymagis. For to the gayest and most rychely arayed ymage ratheest wil the puple offur and nought to no pore ymage stondyng in a symple kirk or chapel, but if it stonde ryaly tabernaclid with keruyng and peyntid with gold and precious iewelis. … And so it semes that the puple worschipis the gaye peyntyng of the rotun stok and nought the seynt in whos name it is seett there.”Footnote 54
While the Lollards recommended using the reliquaries’ precious metals and jewels to help the poor, Reference KarlstadtKarlstadt demanded the outright destruction of the materials that artworks are made of. In an exquisitely paradoxical line of reasoning, he argues that they must die precisely because they are inanimate: “The eyes of pictures cannot see and their hearts cannot think and understand.”Footnote 55 Reversing Karlstadt’s logic, Reference MitchellW. J. T. Mitchell takes iconoclasm to be the ultimate proof of the fact that images are deemed “alive.”Footnote 56 Offering empirical evidence of the belief in divine immanence and the anthropomorphization of images in Renaissance Florence, Holmes’s study of miracle-working images is a powerful reminder that referentiality was not necessarily, or not exclusively, what fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century religious art was supposed to deliver. The cult of relics and the importance of visuality in devotional practice led to the expectation that on occasion, sacred art performs miracles.
The Flemish Madonna Lactans
Holmes argues that Florentine artists were expected to supply their audiences with potentially miracle-working images that exhibited a strong address to the viewer while also observing decorum when it came to representations of the nursing Virgin.Footnote 57 By contrast, Flemish artists invented a particular version of the Madonna Lactans that thrived on the Virgin Mary’s erotic appeal to the viewer and on the observation of closely observed, realistic details made possible by the newly established medium of oil paint. The nursing Madonna soon became one of the preferred and most popular motifs in Flemish art. It is important to note that the Flemish version of the Madonna Lactans was very different from its Italian predecessors in the fourteenth century. While in Italy, the Madonna’s “one bare breast” was purposefully dislocated or distorted to highlight its symbolic function and avoid all suspicions of eroticization,Footnote 58 the Flemish Madonna Lactans flaunted a beautifully naturalistic and thoroughly visible breast and nipple since its emergence in the early fifteenth century.Footnote 59 In 1440, Florentine artists stopped depicting the theme due to the new demands of naturalistic representation that had come into conflict with the nursing Madonna’s religious significance,Footnote 60 but perhaps also because of Saint Bernardino of Siena’s (1380–1444) biting critique of the cult of the Virgin’s milk.Footnote 61 Flemish artists, by contrast, had just started to embrace the theme, attempting to amplify what their Italian counterparts shied away from: namely, the eroticization of Mary’s “one bare breast” for the purpose of creating a powerful address to the viewer. They translated into painting what French artists before them had rendered in lifelike Gothic statuary.Footnote 62
Already in 1428, members of the workshop of Robert Campin—which included Rogier van der Weyden—had painted a freestanding Madonna Lactans whose engorged breast and white skin are beautifully rendered in anatomically correct fashion (fig. 4). Baby Jesus is just about to start suckling, but affords the beholder a good view of Mary’s nipple—a detail rarely seen in Italian versions of the topic. Ten years earlier, Masolino da Panicale had dared to depict the Virgin’s nipple as well, but only in the context of a breast that is dislocated and so small that it entirely fits between Mary’s splayed pointer and middle finger.Footnote 63 In his Bardi Altarpiece from 1485, Sandro Botticelli offered a glimpse of Mary’s nipple, but hid the rest of her breast behind her hand and a somewhat unrealistic V-hold.Footnote 64 A few years later, a follower of Leonardo’s depicted Mary’s breast more openly, but rendered her areola only hazily.Footnote 65 Italian audiences had to wait for Artemisia Gentileschi to depict the Madonna’s nipple and V-hold naturalistically (1610–20).Footnote 66
The particular focus on the Virgin’s naked breast and nipple is distinct in Flemish art. A few years after Robert Campin’s workshop had produced the abovementioned panel of the standing Madonna Lactans (1428–30), Rogier van der Weyden experimented with the topic as well. In his two early versions of the motif preserved in Vienna (1430–32) and Madrid (1433), the humbly nursing Virgin is still also Queen of Heaven as indicated by her crown and majestic demeanor (figs. 5 and 6). While Campin’s Madonna from 1428, who exchanged her crown for a simple headscarf but wears a halo, stands directly in front of the viewer on a stretch of lawn, van der Weyden’s Madonnas are placed in Gothic niches rendered in grisaille, pretending to be statues come to life.Footnote 67 Their statue-like placement in architectural niches is a distancing device partially undone by the illusion of their approaching, hinted at by the folds of their garments that reach into the space of the viewer. As in the version by Campin’s workshop, Baby Christ either suckles or is about to suckle from her breast, but leaves her nipple exposed. Campin’s workshop’s Städel Madonna might have been inspired by a French Gothic marble statue, the Virgin of La Cour-Dieu from the Loire Valley (ca. 1370), while van der Weyden’s Vienna Madonna exhibits great resemblance to a polychromed chalk statue from the cemetery of Saint-Pierre in Amiens (ca. 1395–1405) (figs. 7 and 8).Footnote 68 The two paintings thus represent Campin’s and van der Weyden’s efforts to translate the prestigious medium of Gothic sculpture into the new medium of Flemish oil painting, rendering the Virgin’s lifelikeness in color while preserving her elegant contrapposto and the luscious cascade of her drapery.
Starting in the 1460s, Rogier van der Weyden and his followers pioneered a different, more domesticated version of the Madonna Lactans in half-length format.Footnote 69 Gone are Mary’s crown, majestic poise, and Gothic niche. She is now placed in a domestic interior, her hair partially covered by her veil, holding Baby Jesus on her lap or a pillow. In three of the four surviving renderings, the Christ Child does not nurse, even though Mary presents her nipple with the typical V-hold; only in the Caen version, Mary’s hands are folded in prayer and her nipple is covered by her infant’s head.
Van der Weyden’s particular fondness for the nursing Madonna reached programmatic significance already in 1435–40 when he integrated the theme into his painting of Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (fig. 9). This altarpiece was either installed in the Chapel of Saint Catherine where the members of the Guild of Saint Luke of Brussels held their services, or in their guild house. Painters’ guilds all over Europe were named after Saint Luke, who, according to a Byzantine apocryphal source, had been the first to draw a likeness of the Virgin Mary. Repeating Saint Luke’s original translation of the “word become flesh” into visuality, paintings of the evangelist thus spelled out Christian art’s raison d’être. Unprecedented about van der Weyden’s painting is his choice to depict Saint Luke in the act of drawing the likeness of the Virgin as she nurses her son. Van der Weyden thus departs from the more traditional, Byzantine, aesthetic of icons believed to have been authored by Saint Luke. At about the same time that van der Weyden completed his altarpiece, Fursy de Bruille installed a fourteenth-century Sienese icon of the Virgin and Child in the Cathedral of Cambrai, where it attracted thousands of pilgrims. This Eleusa icon, or Virgin of Tenderness, was depicted in the Byzantine manner and recognized as a portrait of the evangelist.Footnote 70 By contrast, van der Weyden’s compositional novelty declares the Madonna Lactans to be the most authentic ur-icon in Christian art, and recommends the subject matter for imitation to Flemish artists.>
And imitate they did: Jan van Eyck followed with a Madonna Lactans in 1436 whose baby is latched onto her breast but leaves her nipple partially visible (fig. 10). As in Campin’s and van der Weyden’s earlier versions, the painting combines distancing devices with compositional choices that indicate proximity and familiarity. Van Eyck’s Madonna sits under a baldachin on a throne, her feet and garments resting on a carpet that reaches into the viewer’s space. Somewhat incongruously, her throne fills up almost entirely the interior architectural space that contains it, which, judging from the glass window to her right and the household items placed on the scaffold to her left, is supposed to be a domestic interior. This peculiar hybrid presentation of the Queen of Heaven as contemporary housewife and nursing mother is given up entirely in Campin’s workshop’s The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen from 1440 (fig. 1). Here, the Madonna is entirely domesticated, with a fire screen serving as her halo and her crouching position that amplifies the humility of her task. Also, Campin abandons all pretense of the baby suckling in favor of enhancing the voyeuristic address that Mary creates by offering her nipple to the viewer.Footnote 71
Campin’s variation on the theme of the Madonna Lactans had long-lasting effects. Starting in approximately 1460, Dieric Bouts joined Rogier van der Weyden in presenting the nursing Virgin in half-length format situated either in a domestic interior or in front of a curtain (fig. 11).Footnote 72 In the two artists’ (and their workshops’) serial production of the motif, the Madonna routinely exposes one breast and nipple to the viewer, while the baby sometimes touches her breast, sometimes raises his hands in a gesture of salutation. This version of the motif, in which the Christ Child does not suckle from the Virgin’s breast but lets the beholder enjoy it visually, flourished in Flemish art until ca. 1530, despite all Italianate influences. Jan Gossaert and Joos van Cleve, in particular, insisted on rendering the Madonna’s “one bare breast” naturalistically. Their supereroticized images push the boundaries of late medieval visuality and are hard to take seriously as devotional pictures, even though art historians continue to stress their religious or didactic function.Footnote 73 The exponential output of eroticized nursing Virgins around 1525 might have inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam a year later to write a biting satire against the widespread veneration of milk relics and the ubiquity of the Madonna Lactans as a pictorial motif. In his dialogue “A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake,” Erasmus goes beyond Bernardino in linking his polemic against milk relics with his ridicule of the nursing Madonna.Footnote 74 Ventriloquizing the Virgin Mary, he has her complain about no longer being represented majestically as Queen of Heaven, but as a humble woman in raggedy clothes with her baby constantly suckling from her breast. Lamenting contemporary Catholics’ overwhelming demands for intercession in a letter addressed to Ulrich Zwingli, no less, she expresses her thanks to the Reformers of Basel for reducing her workload and redirecting people’s attention to the adult Christ and the sacrifice he made for the redemption of mankind.Footnote 75 Apart from ridiculing the cult of relics and Catholic visual culture, Erasmus questions the eroticization of the Virgin Mary in mystic devotional practice. Ogygius, the pilgrim who worships milk relics, is confused and befuddled after a conversation with a presumably homosexual abbot: “The Hystero-protos … asked whether I had ever seen the secrets of the Virgin [Hystero-protos means ‘posterior prior,’ a pun on protos-hysteros, which means ‘abbot’]. This language startled me somewhat, but I didn’t dare ask which secrets of the Virgin he meant, since in subjects so sacred even a slip of the tongue can be dangerous. I say I haven’t seen them but that I want to very much. I’m led on now as though divinely inspired.”Footnote 76
Possibly in response to such criticism and ridicule, Joos van Cleve eventually turned to what art historians call “more modern,” i.e., Italianate, versions of the Virgin and Child that show Mary chastely buttoned up, such as his Leonardo-esque Madonna of the Cherries.Footnote 77 By contrast, Jan Gossaert remained committed to depicting the Madonna Lactans and variations thereof in stunningly eroticized, and sometimes gender-bending, fashion.Footnote 78 As was the case with Rogier van der Weyden, Gossaert inaugurated his preoccupation with the Madonna’s nipple by integrating a nursing Virgin into his panel of Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (fig. 12). This painting is a direct quotation of van der Weyden’s earlier work and was presumably meant to lend legitimacy to a motif that would soon encounter serious criticism and ridicule. The vanishing point of the painting leads to an interesting doubling of the scene in the background, where another Saint Luke draws a standing Virgin and Child in a Gothic architectural interior reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s Madonna in a Church (1438–40). Gossaert’s repeated quotations of earlier Flemish masters within a classicizing architectural setting are archaicizing references that seem to enact the same gesture van der Weyden and van Eyck performed when rendering Gothic statuary in the then new medium of oil paint. In his second rendering of Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (1520), Gossaert retreated from such authenticating quotations and depicted the Virgin Mary in contemporary Italianate fashion. She now appears to Saint Luke as Queen of Heaven, elegantly dressed, supported by angels and floating on a cloud while receiving the tender caresses of her naked infant son. Nonetheless, almost all of Gossaert’s subsequent renderings of the Virgin and Child are characterized by a focus on Mary’s nipple as well as those of the Christ Child, in images that show the Madonna squeezing her baby’s engorged breasts while she is fully clothed.Footnote 79
The Lactation of Saint Bernard
In Flanders, the popularity of the Madonna Lactans went hand in hand with skyrocketing representations of the Lactation of Saint Bernard, an iconography that was invented in late thirteenth-century Catalan art but experienced a sudden boom between 1470 and 1530 in Northern art.Footnote 80 As Reference FranceJames France has shown, this iconography is by far the most frequent among other visual representations of Saint Bernard, with a total of 119 images, 102 of which appeared in the Low Countries and the Rhineland and 15 on the Iberian Peninsula.Footnote 81 Its remarkable fortune in Flemish art of the later fifteenth century stands in stark contrast to the rejection of the motif in ItalyFootnote 82 —an interesting analogy to the modesty with which earlier Italian painters denaturalized the Virgin’s breast in representations of the Madonna Lactans. According to written versions of the legend, Saint Bernard received his milk vision after praying “Ave Maris Stella” in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. When he reached the phrase “monstra te esse matrem” (“show yourself to be a mother”), the statue became animated and placed three drops or jets of milk into Saint Bernard’s mouth.Footnote 83
The very first images of this motif comprise a retable devoted to scenes from the life of Saint Bernard in the church of the Knights Templar in Palma de Mallorca (fig. 13); a relief in the Church of Saint Mary in Montblanch near Poblet (1348);Footnote 84 an altarpiece by Pedro Nicolau in the Hermitage of Our Lady of Hope in Albocacer (1408–12);Footnote 85 an altarpiece by Anton Peris painted for the Convent of Saint Dominic in Valencia (1415);Footnote 86 and the retable of Saint Ildefonso in Burgo Cathedral by the Master of Osma (1460).Footnote 87 The earliest illuminations can be found in a missal from Albocaça, Portugal (1300–25);Footnote 88 an eleventh-century Gospel book from the Lower Rhineland, into which a miniature was later inserted (1375–1400);Footnote 89 and a French collection of exempla, eight of which were dedicated to Saint Bernard (fig. 14).
How exactly the motif started to obsess Flemish, Dutch, and German audiences in the second half of the fifteenth century is unknown, but Reference DuránRafael M. Durán argues that the Poblet Monastery in Catalonia was heavily involved in promoting the iconography.Footnote 90 Reference DupeuxCécile Dupeux suggests that the legend’s flourishing in Flanders, the Low Countries, and the Rhineland can be explained by the popularity of bridal mysticism in the work of Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), Johannes Tauler (1300–61), Henri Suso (1300–66), and Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1361).Footnote 91 While it is true that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his followers developed a very sensual and erotic language in their sermons and writings, it needs to be stressed that they did so before the explosion of visuality in Catholic devotion started to surround believers with naturalistically rendered figurative images.Footnote 92
To some extent, the power of visuality and the potential for artworks to come to life are the most astonishing and counterintuitive plot elements in the story of Saint Bernard’s lactation. The nursing event itself fits neatly into his admiration for the bride’s and the groom’s swelling breasts in his sermons on the Song of Songs.Footnote 93 However, the legend and iconography of Saint Bernard’s encounter with a statue of the nursing Virgin anachronistically stress a kind of visual devotion that was foreign to his theology and model a literal concern with materiality and visuality that Saint Bernard would not have approved of. After all, he preferred immaterial, aural sensations as paths to divine knowledge, declaring quite explicitly: “Faith comes by hearing, not seeing.”Footnote 94 On numerous occasions, he expressed his disdain for bodily beauty and his admiration for the invisible bodies of angels.Footnote 95
While Saint Bernard’s assumed reliance on religious art for his meditational exercises is a fictive element that distorts his preference for music and the spoken word, the milk theme is mentioned numerous times in his writings. For example, Saint Bernard starts his sermons on the Song of Songs by reiterating Saint Paul’s maxim of offering milk to his audience instead of solid food.Footnote 96 Here, milk is identified as the essence of Christian teaching that nurtures believers in the infant stages of their devotion. In sermon 9, however, the topic of engorged breasts and milk sharing takes on a different meaning in the context of the bride’s love for her bridegroom. Both the bride’s and the bridegroom’s breasts swell with milk as an expression of love as charity. In a gender-bending manner, the bride declares that the bridegroom’s breasts have given her “such overwhelming joy,” that their “sweetness” is “better than wine,” and that “the richness of grace that flows from your breasts contributes far more to my spiritual progress than the biting reprimands of superiors.”Footnote 97 The bride’s breasts become engorged as a result of her encounter with her groom: “While the bride is conversing about the Bridegroom, he, as I have said, suddenly appears, [and] yields to her desire by giving her a kiss. … The filling up of her breasts is a proof of this. For so great is the potency of that holy kiss, that no sooner has the bride received it than she conceives and her breasts grow rounded with the fruitfulness of conception, bearing witness, as it were, with this milky abundance.” Finally, the breasts of all believers are filled with overflowing love, “if [they] … persevere in prayer.” Indeed, “if somebody should press upon it then, this milk of sweet fecundity would gush forth in streaming richness.”Footnote 98 In other words: everybody’s breasts swell with milk as sign and effect of spiritual desire, and both the bride and the bridegroom as well as all believers share this milk in an ecstasy of mutual love and giving.
In Saint Bernard’s time, such figurative rhetoric would have been consumed aurally or textually, not visually. Upon translating the discourse on the power of the bride’s, the groom’s, or the Virgin Mary’s breasts into late medieval visuality, certain problems arose. For example, according to one of the earliest literary sources of the legend of his lactation, Saint Bernard suckles directly from Mary’s bosom (fig. 14). The manuscript is illuminated with an image of this encounter, but this is not the version that would become popular in the arts.Footnote 99 The only other painting that shows Saint Bernard suckling next to Christ from the Virgin’s breasts is, to my knowledge, by an anonymous artist from seventeenth-century Peru.Footnote 100 Since the later fourteenth century, the saint usually receives spouts of milk that Mary squirts from one exposed breast into his mouth, as established on the Spanish retable from 1290 (fig. 13). The exchange of the suckling for the spouting served as an important distancing device in visual culture that received further elaboration when, in late fifteenth-century prints and illuminations, the squirts of milk appear as rays of light aimed at the saint’s eyes, not his mouth. Most importantly, the iconography suggests that it was only after prolonged staring at the Virgin’s breasts that her milk started to materialize.
Reference FranceJames France has documented the many different versions of the iconography of Saint Bernard’s lactation. In over a third of the 119 images he lists, the jets of milk have been made visible.Footnote 101 Among those, Saint Bernard is sometimes shown to worship a statue or a painting of the Virgin Mary that has come to life. In a painting by the Master of Castellnovo in the Périgueux Cathedral, he prays in front of a small devotional painting of the Virgin and Child hung slightly above eye level.Footnote 102 In four woodcuts from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and one engraving by Raphaël Sadeler from the early seventeenth century, Saint Bernard kneels in front of a life-sized, framed image of the Virgin and Child that spouts milk (fig. 15).Footnote 103 In a fresco from Rivalta Scrivia, a painting by the Flemish Master of the Female Half-Lengths in Cologne, and two book illuminations (fig. 16), the Virgin appears to Saint Bernard in the form of an animated statue.Footnote 104 She is casually seated in the architectural niche that she used to inhabit more stiffly as work of art, in analogy to van der Weyden’s representations of the Madonna Lactans from Vienna and Madrid, respectively (figs. 5 and 6). In his Vienna panel, the Virgin, painted in vivid colors, is in the process of stepping out of the Gothic niche that once contained her, rendered in grisaille, while in the Madrid version, she uses the base of her niche as a bench to lounge on. In the abovementioned representations of Saint Bernard, the Virgin has, likewise, come to life, using the niche as seat. Her divine presence in those representations is doubly mediated by reference to earlier paintings in which she appears as an animated statue. Saint Bernard’s spiritually productive work of gazing is emphasized and promoted as a model to be followed.
Most often, however, Saint Bernard conducts his spiritual exercises in the direct presence of the Virgin Mary, who is sometimes seated on a throne, sometimes in front of a cloth of honor. In three different illuminations from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, Saint Bernard is shown to kneel in front of Mary’s throne.Footnote 105 One such illumination, produced by the workshop of the Master of Charles V, shows the Madonna and saint in a composition reminiscent of an Annunciation scene, with a column dividing the two and a tiled floor that indicates perspectival recess (fig. 17).Footnote 106 Also, the narrow interior that contains the Virgin’s throne recalls van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (fig. 10). As in van Eyck’s painting, the Madonna’s garments intrude into the viewer’s space—in this case, Saint Bernard’s.
In an engraving by Dirk Vellert,Footnote 107 the Madonna is seated in a fantastic architectural landscape reminiscent of Gossaert’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (1515). In a painting from Faenza, she appears to Saint Bernard in a garden, surrounded by angels.Footnote 108 And in an anonymous woodcut from Mainz, she spouts her milk at him from a balcony.Footnote 109 Other distancing devices consist of showing her in a mandorla, as in two Spanish paintings from the mid- and late fifteenth century;Footnote 110 this latter variety indicates that Bernard received an interior vision of the Madonna, not an actual visit. Most often, however, Mary and Bernard are very intimately situated next to each other without any distancing device, suggesting a real encounter. Especially in miniatures, the two saints plus Baby Jesus are often crowded into a very small space, with the Virgin struggling to maintain her superior position. Sometimes, speech ribbons indicate the ritual nature of their encounter, recording their exchange of words.Footnote 111 Often, Mary, Jesus, and Saint Bernard are surrounded by an aureole of light or a halo to indicate the sacred nature of the scene.Footnote 112 In two manuscripts, their nimbi are faint to the point of being almost invisible: in a Flemish book of hours from the late fifteenth century, a plainly dressed, fully human-looking Mary with a loosened bodice squirts milk at Saint Bernard who is standing directly in front of her, leaning against a window.Footnote 113 In yet another Flemish book of hours, Saint Bernard kneels in front of Mary and her son in a utopian coastal landscape; for some whimsical reason, the couple is framed by mermaid fishtails, curved to indicate the letter S they are inhabiting.Footnote 114
In full-fledged paintings of the motif, the milk jets are often left out, probably in order to avoid conflict with naturalistic modes of representation, or else to indicate the moment just prior to the miracle. Among the paintings that show the jet, however faint, is a beautiful panel by a South Netherlandish master preserved in Cologne, in which Mary stands in a walled-up garden in front of a gold mosaic. She holds the Christ Child on her arm, who helps to squeeze her one engorged, and slightly dislodged, breast to produce a tiny jet of milk aimed at the saint’s mouth.Footnote 115 A different group of smaller, devotional paintings shows the Virgin in the style of Dieric Bouts. Here, Mary sits in front of a brocade cloth of honor, and either squirts her milk directly into Saint Bernard’s mouth,Footnote 116 or bares her breast to the viewer while the saint waits for the milk to materialize.Footnote 117 In those paintings, Saint Bernard is situated in front of a window that underscores the realism of the scene, but also highlights the couple’s proximity in the same enclosed domestic interior. While the two Boutsian paintings model Saint Bernard’s voyeurism for the viewer, i.e., his direct stare at Mary’s exposed breast and nipple, the two versions produced by Joos van Cleve’s workshop appear to be more modest. In both latter paintings, preserved in Paris and Brussels, respectively, the Madonna bares her breast for both the viewer and the saint while the Christ Child either plays with his rosary or sleeps in her arms.Footnote 118 Saint Bernard’s gaze, however, is somewhat diffuse, aiming obliquely at a spot left of the Virgin rather than staring at her directly.
It seems that the popularity of the milk-spouting Virgin in Flemish, Netherlandish, and South Rhenish representations of Saint Bernard’s miracle after 1470 fed off and reinforced in turn an earlier obsession with the Madonna Lactans. In a somewhat circular manner, engravings and illuminations of Saint Bernard praying in front of images of the nursing Virgin that recall Gothic statuary or Flemish paintings reinforced the importance of visuality and figurative art for Catholic audiences and their spiritual adventures. However, the drops of milk that The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen (1440) flaunts at the viewer refer themselves back to earlier depictions of the legend; especially in Spanish representations of Saint Bernard’s lactation, the jets of milk are often clearly visible, as in the retables from Palma and Burgos, respectively.Footnote 119 The Castilian Madonna Lactans by the Master of Miraflores (1490) spouts three jets of milk at the Christ Child, underscoring the interdependence of the two iconographies in both the Netherlands and Spain.Footnote 120 Unlike in Italy, where the veneration of the Madonna Lactans was directed at the Virgin in the act of chastely and humbly nursing her son, Flemish (and to some extent, Spanish) religious audiences preferred to worship the Madonna in the act of exhibiting her bare breast and sharing her milk with the beholder.
While the representation of Saint Bernard being sprayed by the Virgin’s milk testifies to the power of religious artworks to come to life and promotes similar miracles in turn, a sizable subset of the iconography (eighteen images in Reference FranceJames France’s collection) dematerializes his experience. In those images, Saint Bernard receives rays of light aiming for his eyes instead of jets of milk directed at his mouth. In a particularly beautiful miniature in a prayer book from Brussels (1520–30), Saint Bernard is shown in a Gothic church interior, contemplating a statue of the Virgin Mary who sprays a white substance at his eyes in a direct, straight line (fig. 18). Mary is positioned in the architectural niche designed for her, but the vivid colors in which she is painted indicate her lifelikeness. Another miniature in a Cistercian missal shows a Virgin and Child enthroned in front of a cloth of honor just like van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (fig. 10).Footnote 121 Saint Bernard, equipped with book and crozier, half averts his eyes about to be touched by the rays of light emanating from Mary’s breast. In a book of hours from Burgundy (1485), Saint Bernard presents a donor nun to the Virgin, who is seated under a colorful baldachin and squeezes rays of light at the saint’s eyes (fig. 19). This illumination records a multilayered economy of intercession, as both Mary and Bernard are enlightened by God’s golden radiance that reaches them as sunlight shining through an open window. Only the donor nun would have to pray more intensely before the rays can touch her. The light issuing forth from Mary’s breast is rendered in analogy to God’s golden rays, albeit in a different color (white).
A total of seven engravings and woodcuts from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries represent Saint Bernard in like fashion—i.e., in the act of receiving rays of light instead of milk.Footnote 122 In an anonymous woodcut from Germany, the saint is shown to worship a life-sized, half-length, and framed painting of the Madonna and Child; the Madonna squirts rays of light at him from one exposed breast.Footnote 123 The stool and window indicate that the painting was supposed to be a private work of art hung in a domestic interior. This composition was picked up by the workshop of Hans Holbein a couple of decades later, even though in their version the painting seems to be hung in a church.Footnote 124 Also, the squirting Madonna is shown to be floating on a cloud. In both instances, Saint Bernard opens his eyes wide to receive his vision. A metal engraving from Cologne (1480) depicts the couple in the manner of Dieric Bouts,Footnote 125 while a rough Danish woodcut used as a frontispiece to Fundamenta in Grammatica (1493) shows the rays of light as arrows shooting from Mary’s breast.Footnote 126 A woodcut from Strasbourg (1498) depicts Saint Bernard receiving one ray for each eye,Footnote 127 while Israhel of Meckenem divides the two rays between the saint’s mouth and eye.Footnote 128 This latter engraving is interesting also for its inclusion of Saint Catherine’s Mystic Marriage to the right. In the Master of Zwolle’s print from 1480,Footnote 129 Mary’s rays aim at his forehead while Saint Bernard’s mouth issues the usual exhortation: “Show yourself to be a mother.” This print attempts to clarify—perhaps more than any of the others mentioned above—that the famous Cistercian received an interior vision while praying out loud to what appears to be an elevated, life-sized wooden statue of Mary placed in a church interior. In an Austrian painting, Saint Bernard’s eyes receive a white dotted line,Footnote 130 while in an Italian book of hours (1500–05), the Madonna’s naked breast spouts milk at both his eyes and mouth.Footnote 131 Urs Graf’s bust reliquary of Saint Urban, produced in Zürich in 1519, depicts the rays curved, as if they were jets of milk after all.Footnote 132 In four further images, a similar ambiguity is expressed, with rays of light or jets of milk aiming for what could be the saint’s eyes, nose, or mouth (fig. 17).Footnote 133
The ambiguous representations as well as the definite ones that insist on Mary shooting light, not milk, are interesting for their different interpretations of Saint Bernard’s miracle. While the ambiguous representations highlight that visuality and materiality were interdependent miraculous modalities, the latter ones emphasize that Saint Bernard experienced his miracle as a dematerialized, interior vision. The images that cast the saint as enlightened rather than nourished in the flesh might be read as attempts to restore the spiritual—i.e., disembodied and invisible—aim of Saint Bernard’s rhetoric, were it not for the fact that several of them show him praying in front of a painting or statue (fig. 18).Footnote 134 Ultimately, none of the abovementioned images was able to correct the anachronism of the iconography that translates into visuality what was meant to flourish as speech or text.
Contemporary theories of vision that emphasized the materiality of light assisted the confusion—if one wants to call it that—and prompted artists and their clientele to regard the visual consumption of religious works of art as a religious experience that bore the potential of revealing the paintings’ or statues’ latent divine presence.Footnote 135 As in illuminations of the Mass of Saint Gregory, with which representations of the Lactation of Saint Bernard were often paired, art asserts itself most vigorously in its capacity to produce both interior visions as well as exterior miracles.Footnote 136 The collapse of materiality into visuality as well as the materialization of the visible established a particular horizon of expectation that governed a viewer’s mode of consumption and fed their hope for a particular artwork—especially statues or devotional paintings—to become animated. As noted earlier, the Man of Sorrows depicted in paintings of the Mass of Saint Gregory even seems to come to life independently of the beholder’s desiring gaze.
Prints and miniatures did not necessarily have the same latent powers as paintings or statuary; as in representations of the Lactation of Saint Bernard, they rather quoted and recorded the miraculous efficacy of more prestigious artworks and informed the viewer of their need for the correct devotional address.Footnote 137 Prints were sometimes even ground up and ingested, as David Freedberg notes, pointing to the differential powers of certain media independently of their images.Footnote 138 Images residing in prestigious media such as Gothic statuary of Flemish oil paintings were able to retain their representational status while also effecting miraculous material change. Images residing in mass-produced media, if miracle working, lost their visuality and were reduced to pure matter. This did not prevent viewers from taking prints seriously, however, as Peter Schmidt’s study of handwritten notes on devotional woodcuts and etchings shows.Footnote 139
Paintings featuring the Virgin’s drops of milk, such as those pioneered by Robert Campin’s workshop and similarly graphic versions of the Madonna Lactans, were thus intended to direct the viewer’s spiritual attention to the possibility of a miracle in the manner of Saint Bernard. The theological justification of this practice can be found, among others, in the Annunciation of Mary through which the Word became flesh all over again. While the Annunciation depicts how God’s spirit materializes in Mary’s womb and flesh, the nursing Virgin demonstrates the reverse: here, the milk of her breasts spiritualizes the viewer’s experience while also rendering Christ fully human. With respect to The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen, it is important to note that this painting has often been brought in connection with the Mérode triptych of the Annunciation, a painting attributed to the so-called Master of Flémalle, an anonymous artist who is now presumed to be Robert Campin (fig. 20). The formal and stylistic similarities between the Annunciation and The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen are numerous, as Stephan Kemperdick and Felix Thürlemann have noted, ranging from the Virgin’s face and countenance as well as the white cloth that covers the Bible she’s reading to her crouching position next to and in front of a wooden bench.Footnote 140 Most importantly, the Virgin Mary from the Annunciation scene, if flipped to the right by ninety degrees, would assume the position of the Madonna seated in front of the fire screen. These formal references suggest that The Virgin in Front of a Fire Screen was conceived of as a sequel to the earlier Annunciation and that her drops of milk embody and visualize the spiritual essence of Mary’s maternal care. According to the Mérode Annunciation, God’s sperm had already taken on visible, corporeal form at the moment of conception.Footnote 141 This is unusual, as most Annunciation scenes leave the miraculous nature of God’s intervention invisible, or, at best, visualize it in the form of rays of light, especially in contemporary Italian versions of the theme.Footnote 142
The insistence with which Robert Campin and artists associated with his workshop aimed at visualizing embodied spiritual events indicates a certain preoccupation with giving empirical proof of miraculous phenomena. It also allegorizes the enhanced mimetic quality of the new medium of oil paint, capable of rendering visible details that formerly were not representable. Above all, it invites the beholder’s voyeuristic participation in the miracle itself, announcing the collapse of sign and referent and delivering a repeat event in the form of art. As in the legend of Saint Bernard’s vision of the lactating Madonna, religious artworks held the potential for producing material and visible evidence of their hybrid status as representations and sacred objects. Mary’s lactation assumed programmatic importance in this respect, as the erotic charge associated with her naked breast and nipple aroused the viewer to produce vivid fantasies of suckling from her bosom, or, as happened to Saint Bernard, of receiving spouts of milk issuing from her representation.
Play with the object status of religious art was to change drastically during the course of the sixteenth century, when religious art, including Italian art, experienced a crisis that produced numerous different answers to the iconoclastic challenge of the German Reformation. In The Controversy of Renaissance Art, Alexander Nagel analyzes the different modes in which Italian artists engaged in what he calls “againstness,” that is, a mode of exploring “unresolved impulses” in their religious artworks that sometimes amounts to a form of “soft iconoclasm.”Footnote 143 Common to many such endeavors to examine and reestablish the purpose and aesthetic of sacred art was a certain archaeological approach that consisted of “excavating” images by removing and exposing top layers of visual tradition.Footnote 144 In my eyes, Caravaggio’s use of the detail of spilled milk in his altarpiece The Seven Works of Mercy (1606) is one such example of undoing a visual tradition that sought to collapse the visualization of material evidence with spiritual truth. In Caravaggio’s painting, two drops of Pero’s milk have spilled onto Cimon’s beard, who is suckling his daughter’s breast in an ingenious adaptation of the iconography of Roman Charity for the purpose of illustrating three of the seven mandatory works of mercy (fig. 21).Footnote 145 While the breastfeeding scene does not pretend to be realistic in the sense of depicting an activity that might have been observable on any given day on a busy Neapolitan street, it does indicate Caravaggio’s intention to secularize the meaning of Catholic charity by de-allegorizing it. No longer the personification of an abstract religious virtue, Pero becomes the narrative protagonist in a story-like composition of everyday activities that qualify as Catholic acts of mercy. She acts as a successor to the Madonna Lactans, who has weaned her son and watches benevolently from above as Pero nurses her father. The drops of milk, finally, which she spills onto Cimon’s beard instead of offering them to the beholder, are proof of this secularizing gesture. No longer bearing divine knowledge, serving as the prime medium for Mary’s intercession, or illustrating the effect of the Word made flesh, they demonstrate Cimon’s real want and need, but also prove the artist’s virtuosity in commenting on and undoing a centuries-old visual and religious tradition in the form of two tiny white dots on a canvas.