Active RNS subscribers and members can view this content at the RNS Archives website.

(RNS) At its heartwarming core, Christmas is the story of a tender relationship between a new mother and her newborn child. Yet all the familiar images associated with the holy family are missing one obvious element: a breast-feeding infant. And therein lies a tale. By David Gibson.


  1. The Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit in 2011 called Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France. One of the objects it contained was a “Reliquary of the Virgin’s Milk” from sixteenth-century France, a lovely silver and bejeweled concoction built to hold the breast milk of the Blessed Virgin. It exemplified a very physical and intimate link to a very human yet also divine experience, the feeding of the Christ child by his mother. As my Protestant friend commented upon seeing it: “You Catholics, you celebrate everything!”

  2. This reminds me of art historian and critic Leo Steinberg’s classic book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Jesus’s penis was removed from thousands of statues and paintings as the nature of religion and secular culture changed.

  3. Richard, that’s a great reference, and to a fascinating book:

  4. For me, all this places too much emphasis on Mary, and not on Jesus. It is Jesus on whom all the attention should be directed. (Yes, I am Baptist) And the cross should be the only Christian symbol of God’s love for us. It was because of that love that God allowed His only Son to suffer and die on the cross. It is not His birth, but His death, that gave us the gift of eternal life.

  5. In St. Augustine, FL–oldest city in the US–there has been for a long time a shrine to “Our Lady of LaLeche”. Therein is a statue of the Virgin breastfeeding the Christ Child. It attracts a substantial number of visitors and has particular significance for women who with fertility problems.

  6. I consider the prejudice against the female mammary activity to be a disease of prudery and prefer the wholly real idea that lactation promotes proper immunity to disease in the infant and is proper use of the woman’s body as part of birth. We should abandon the misconceptions of the Puritans and other prudes, and recognise that children should derive their earliest nutrition from their mothers (or wet nurses) when at all practical, with formula only supplementing when actually necessary. ‘Boobs’ aren’t obscene; paranoia at seeing an exposed breast certainly is obscene.

  7. Patricia Overton

    I guess I am a prude then, as I fully support breast feeding, but feel it is a private necessity. What is next – a statue of Mary changing Jesus’ diaper?

  8. A brilliant article.

    Patricia, changing a baby’s bottom is not quite the same as nursing! However, youare not to blame for the way you feel about seeing breastfeeding. It is our current society and cultural history that is responsible.

    These are powerful images that not only remind us of the tenderness of Mary’s love and the vulnerability of The son of God but also the true beauty of breastfeeding.

  9. A beautiful article…thank you :). Very interesting and love the comparisson of a nurturing mother nursing her dependant infant…much like we humans depend on God to provide and care for us

  10. Art is one thing, but reality is another. Yes, breast feeding is a good thing. When necessary breast feeding in public is easily provided without exposure. Exposure not breast feeding is the issue in today’s America.

  11. Thanks for this fantastic article! As an artist and a mother I have long been interested in the topic of the breast feeding Madonna and all it’s spiritual symbolism. I do hope that images of the Madonna Lactans make a comeback. I recently completed a sculpture on the topic myself hoping to pave the way.