my third visit at the uffizi allowed me to get up close and personal with the famous paintings i had, until then, only seen from afar. also, since i wasn’t going with a guide this time, i was able to discover the lesser-known paintings at my own leisure.
one of them struck me: the virgin mary, the madonna, with her breast and nipple out, feeding the baby jesus:
i became even more intrigued as i realized that this theme was repeated in numerous works scattered around the uffizi:
i found these images unsettling. was this about spiritual nourishment? was it intentionally erotic? the scholar margaret miles has written about this depiction of breasts in religious painting from the middle ages to the renaissance in her recent book a complex delight: the secularization of the breast, 1350-1750 (university of california press, 2008). the university press summarizes: ‘margaret r. miles finds that while in 1350 the virgin’s bare breast represented nourishment and loving care—god’s provision for the christian—by 1750, artistic representations of the breast were either erotic or medical. the breast had lost its meaning as a religious symbol. but how did the breast, and nakedness more generally, lose the ability to represent human bodies as site and symbol of religious subjectivity and commitment?‘ (1)
this link between science, religion and art is crucial in understanding the many ‘madonna of the milk’ images in the uffizi, and it encourages us to engage with the idea that arousal and piety were not mutually exclusive – far from it. (2) i only wish i had access to miles’ specific chapter on ‘the virgin’s one bare breast: female nudity and religious meaning in tuscan early renaissance culture’ in the female body in western culture (Harvard University Press, 1986). (as it turns out, the scholar who edited that specific book is a french cultural historian – susan rubin suleiman from harvard – who i have greatly admired for a long time now.)
*see madonnas of the milk at the uffizi, top floor, scattered in a lot of places.*