Italy: HUG Your Baby and Renaissance Paintings

You know Jim best as: the VP, editor, and greatest supporter of HUG Your Baby; Jan's husband; the saxophone player for the HUG theme song, and the co-writer of the HUGs Around the World Lullabies. But, since Jim has a PhD in Religion and Culture, he can't help having a few words to say about "mothers and their babies" from the point of view of artistic and spiritual traditions. He shares some thoughts with us today based on our visits to art museums in Spain and Italy.

I am always drawn to Madonna and Child portraits, and the MNAC (Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya), on beautiful Monjuic in Barcelona, is especially rich in this genre. Art historians commonly observe that Renaissance artists sought to humanize their subjects and to make them more lifelike than their predecessors did. The introduction of perspective was one technique for accomplishing this goal. Another Renaissance approach to realism was the artists’ striving to make faces and gestures specific and personal, rather than iconic and universal, as medieval artists attempted to do.

Noticing how Renaissance painters depicted the baby Jesus, it occurred to me that I was seeing real-life HUG principles, observed and embodied. Typically the holy infant is in the “Ready Zone,” ready to interact with those who come to see him, although occasionally he is depicted demonstrating an “SOS,” such as “Switching Off.” Maybe, at the times when he seems to avoid Mary’s gaze, he is listening to his heavenly father, or to angels’ voices. In any case, Mary does not seem upset when Jesus looks away. She’s a wise and accepting mother.

I’ve never seen Jesus portrayed as a fussing or crying baby. His temperament is “easy.” Perhaps, in part, this is because Mary is such a skillful mother. She is also a breastfeeding mother.

I was surprised to learn of an entire sub-genre of Renaissance paintings that show Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Paintings of this style are called, in Spain, “Virgen de la Leche” or “Virgen de la Buena Leche” paintings. Several of them are on display at the MNAC. They were fascinating to see, and remarkably realistic.

Later I saw Italian treatments of the same theme at the Mueso di Castelvecchio in Verona and at the fabulous Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Leonardo painted the leading example of this genre, but it hangs in the Hermitage, and Russia is not on our itinerary for this trip.

But I particularly enjoyed the Uffizi’s Florentine copy of the Leonardo painting, which shows the baby Jesus pulling off Mary’s breast, as if surprised by the appearance of the viewer (or artist), and illustrating the normal distractibility characteristic of four-month-olds.

If this topic has engaged your interest, as it did mine, here are some links where you can learn more.

CLICK HERE to view an archive of Italian “Madonna dell Latte” paintings compiled by a Spanish pediatrician and Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of Valencia.

A La Leche League leader, humorist, and self-identified Roman Catholic “radical,” Caitlin Kennell Kim, blogs about sacred lactation paintings HERE, on a site she calls “Busted Halo.”

Another blogger and mom, Paala from the Bay Area, has posted a lovely series of breastfeeding paintings that she located on the Internet. You can view her collection and commentary HERE.

If your tastes run along more academic lines, you might wish to explore the research of Thomas Peter Kunesh on the iconography of the “pseudo-zygodactylus gesture” (“the gesture of the lactating goddess”) in western art—the fingers of a woman (or a man) at the chest, symbolically expressing milk. CLICK HERE to review this author’s chapter on the Renaissance.

At this point I’ve probably lost most of my readers, and maybe even my own way, so I will archly place my hand on my heart and sign off—but not before drawing attention to just one more major work of art in this genre: the famous Neptune fountain (“Fontana del Nettuno,” completed by Giambologna in 1566). It’s the focal point of Bologna’s central square, the Piazza Maggiore.

This larger-than-life sculpture portrays the unashamedly naked sea god, accompanied by four bronze sea nymphs. When the fountain is working properly, water spouts from the nipples of each goddess. Unfortunately, the fountain was not working when Jan and I visited Bologna (where she spoke at the University of Bologna and at the annual conference of the Italian Infant Massage Association).

We were excited about seeing the Neptune sculpture in action, but when we got to the centro, no water was running, no latte flowing. Evidently, greater attention needs to be paid to the maintenance of this fountain, just as Italian women (like women everywhere) need more attention, encouragement, professional advice, and practical support if they are to achieve their breastfeeding aims!