Breasts and the Church


With the recent controversy surrounding women nursing infants in public, I thought I would do some research. How did something so natural get to be so controversial? And guess what I found? Public images of breastfeeding were not always considered taboo as the image above attests. In Medieval and Renaissance art, the Virgin Mary was portrayed numerous times suckling Jesus. What happened?

Religion has had an ambivalent position on images since the advent of Judaism in the third millennium BCE. One of the Ten Commandments in the Bible forbids graven images. Interpretation of this commandment included prohibition against idols such as carvings, trees, or pillars once used in the worship of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Judaism still sticks to this image prohibition, but is not obsessed about it. Muslims also adhere to this commandment and prohibit any images of their deity or his prophet and have substituted beautiful calligraphy for religious art. Muslim terrorists took the commandment to its extreme when they murdered employees of Charlie Hebdo, a French newspaper that published a cartoon image of Muhammad.

Christianity has shown ambivalence toward the use of images. At first, because the Jesus movement was an offshoot of Judaism and its first followers were Jews, they did not produce any images of either god or Jesus. Early Christians substituted drawings of the fish or lamb in their scrawling in the catacombs to identify themselves. Persecuted for their beliefs, they were not in a position to produce works of art. As the church expanded to the non-Jewish population and the eventual adoption by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine of Christianity, it found out that it needed images. Literacy was restricted to the upper echelons of society and, in any event, the Bible was not generally available to the public until the printing press. The Empire’s religion needed images to teach the masses. With no separation of church and state, the church dictated the parameters for art. For multiple reasons, the Virgin Mary became a favorite subject of paintings. As seen in the above photo, the image of her breastfeeding Jesus bares breast and nipple. Because breast-feeding was the norm in every village and town, these images were not seen as erotic. Breast milk even figured into church miracles. While receiving “milk from the heavenly Mother, Saint Bernard was initiated into supreme consciousness and adopted as the Son of God and Mary.”[1] The female breast had been connected with divine power long before Christianity.[2] But something was to soon intervene.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond, building on the work of Margaret Miles and her text, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750, shows how the Protestant Reformation and the advent of the printing press changed the way Western Culture thought of women’s breasts.

By the 16th century the breast was losing its religious, symbolic power by becoming what Miles defines as the secularized breast. The hegemony of the Catholic Church as it encountered the Protestant Reformation, accompanied by dissemination of information via the printing press, shifted power away from the church to secular authorities. What began to emerge in the late medieval and early modern era were dualistic representations of female bodies as either “good” or “bad,” the former portrayed by the Virgin Mary or female saints, the latter as sexually charged images of either Eve or witches. You might say a paradigm shift occurred with the emergence of the secular breast.[3]

Church art began to take a turn to more “chaste” depictions of saints and the Virgin Mary, no longer showing the bared breast after the Renaissance.[4] Meanwhile, one medieval church portrait of witches shows four women in various poses – all naked with breasts exposed.[5] (See earlier blog post on the Malleus Malleficarum to read more about church’s persecution of witches.)

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The printing press allowed images of nudes to be used as pornographic images. Italian 15th century 16th century engravings showed full frontal nude women with breasts prominently displayed. Over time the availability of erotic images had the effect of stigmatizing the natural breast-feeding function. Thus, the media recently reported an incident in Wilmington, Illinois where a woman was asked to move or cover herself up while breast-feeding in a restaurant.[6] Instead of being seen as a natural function, patrons complained to the owner that they were uncomfortable with the situation. Social media took to the mother’s defense and the restaurant owner ended up making an apology.

The meme of breasts in the Catholic Church has now come full circle and returned to the image of Mary above. In early 2015, Pope Francis issued a statement that breastfeeding in public and even in church is permitted.[7] Five centuries of the Church portraying women’s breasts on those it wished to condemn thus appears to be over.

When will women realize that all religion is created by human beings to serve their own needs. If the Church needed to use breast milk in miracles, that is what happened. If, on the other hand, it needed to portray nude women as sinful witches, it used those images instead. This is not a faith inspired by some supernatural deity. It is a set of dictums that has been created by man to serve man.

Karen Garst

The Faithless Feminist

Photo of Virgin Mary: The Virgin nursing the Child, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (16th century German Renaissance painter)

Photo of witches: See footnote #5.



[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 2005), 33.




[6] Forbes. 5/7/15 – “Breastfeeding in Public. Illinois Restaurant Shows How to Right a Wrong.”


About the Author Karen Garst

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