Although neither town, nor church, nor statue are beautiful, this plain,
formerly Black Madonna became one of the most influential ones in Europe.
It all started with the famous "lactation miracle" of
which there are several renditions. Here is one: When St. Bernard
of Clairveaux (1090-1153) was still a sickly boy in cloister school,
he suffered one day from a dangerous infection. Seeking relief,
he went to pray before the Black Madonna. He was reciting the prayer
'Hail Star of the Sea' and when he came to the part: "Show yourself
a mother!" the image suddenly came alive and squeezing her breast,
let three drops of milk fall onto his lips. Not only was he instantly
healed, body and soul, but his heart was enflamed with such love
for the divine Mother that soon he would enkindle a burning devotion
to her all over Europe.
He expressed his experience with an inspired theology that earned
him the title 'Marian doctor of the Church.' During one famous sermon
he called Mary our 'Aqueduct Of Divine Grace' saying: "This stream
[Christ] from the heavenly source [God the Father] descends to us
through an aqueduct [Mary]; … The aqueduct itself is always full,
so that all may receive of its fullness, yet not the fullness itself.
… an Aqueduct which, receiving the fullness of the Fountain from
the Father's heart, has transmitted it to us, if not as it is in
itself, at least in so far as we could contain it."(1)
Alfonso Cano, the Vision of St. Bernard, 1650
Presently people say, while receiving milk from the heavenly Mother,
Saint Bernard was initiated into supreme consciousness and adopted as
the son of God and Mary. The more medieval wording was that Mary filled
him with all divine graces and purified all his sins. Hence her title
"Our Lady of All Graces".
Here are relatively late examples: Left: A 2nd millennium B.C. Philistine
goddess-vessel that sprouts from the breasts, excavated near Tel Aviv, Israel.
(Philistine as in Samson the Philistine and Delila.)
As the fame of Saint Bernard spread and his theology justified great Marian
devotion, Christians all over Europe started dreaming about being suckled
by the virgin-mother for the salvation of their souls. Maybe they tapped
into an ancient urge and experience of being nurtured at the breasts of
a heavenly mother. Since pre-historic times the divine was portrayed as
a woman offering her breasts to all God's children.
Middle: Ishtar/Innana the Middle-Eastern goddess venerated since the 3rd
millennium B.C. She is often mentioned in the Bible. Her titles include:
Mother of the Fruitful Breast, Queen of Heaven, Light of the World, Creator
of People, Mother of the Gods, River of Life.
Right: The 'Virgin of the Milk' by Pedro Machuca, Spain, 1517 A.D. Mary
and Jesus squeeze her breasts for the salvation of many; some milk spills
onto her dress and souls in purgatory hope it'll trickle down to them.
Christians honored Mary's mother's milk from the first century on. They
held as sacred a white powder that was scraped from the walls of the shelter
in Bethlehem where Jesus presumably was born. Later that white powder
from the stable of the nativity was thought to be Mary's dried milk. Three
"drops of this milk" eventually made it into a medallion that emperor
Charlemagne (742-814) used to carry into battle.(2)
After Bernard's 'lactation miracle' and with the help of his theology,
Mary's milk started flowing all over Europe. After all the saint had prophesied:
"we approach the altar of God and pray, and, if we persevere, despite
our own dryness and tepidity, grace will overpower us, our bosom will
swell, love will fill our hearts…and the milk of sweetness will overflow
everywhere in a torrent."(3)
Most of the important Marian shrines eventually claimed to possess vials
containing a few drops of the Virgin's milk. (The reformer John Calvin
mocked that even a milk cow or a wet nurse couldn't have produced as much
milk as the Holy Virgin!) A new type of Madonna appeared in many churches
and chapels: Maria lactans or virgo lactans, the nursing
virgin bearing her breast. Paintings showed her not only squirting milk
at Saint Bernard but her motherly love overflowing so abundantly that
even the thirst of ordinary Christians and souls in purgatory was quenched.
Jesus got the milk of graces flowing, but now it flowed for all.
Modern thinkers criticize that the very idea of a holy virgin-mother
constitutes an attack on a healthy, natural relationship to the human
body and sexuality. Yet here we see examples of great comfort with the
human body and a wonderful way to use sexual impulses in a transformative
way (like tantra). Saint Bernard's great appreciation of sexual imagery
in the service of enlightenment and divine union is further apparent in
his almost exclusive predilection for the Song of Songs, this erotic love
poem in the Bible.
Over time however, the barrier between the Most Holy Virgin and
ordinary sexual desire became thinner and thinner and the Church
more and more uncomfortable with all those big, round, supposedly
lactating breasts. The breaking point was reached in the fifteenth
century when King Charles VII of France commissioned a painting
of his mistress as the Virgin with Child. Baby Jesus looks uninterested,
even discontent with the breast he knows to be dedicated to the
French rather than the Heavenly King. The painting caused enough
of a scandal that the Church began to dissuade images of bare breasted
or lactating Madonnas and so they became rare.
It took the Heavenly Mother a couple of centuries to respond. (She's
never in a hurry.) Then she started to try and quench the thirst
of her children by shedding salty tears rather than sweet milk.
All over the world icons, statues, and road side reliefs have miraculously
wept tears of water or blood - not as fun a meditation, but also
a life giving secretion from the divine Mother.(4)
|Rome of course, is far away from many parishes who are
not so concerned about Papal wishes. And so many artists still happily
portrayed lactating Madonnas. Here is a particularly beautiful one
whose milk is transformed into rosary beads. (Detail on the right.)
What a wonderful contemplation to think you are being nourished with
divine mother's milk when you pray the rosary! According to the artist,
each Hail Mary contains a drop of Mary's saving milk.
'The Virgin of Belén' by Bolivian painter Melchor
Pérez de Holguín early 18th century.
Here is a modern painting from 2004 by the Spanish artist Vicente
Valls. It hangs in the church St. Michael the Archangel in Burjassot,
Spain. It seems to draw a parallel between on the one hand the sacred
blood of Christ, which flows from the chalice and sanctifies the
disciples of Jesus, forming their halos, and on the other hand the
milk of Mary poured out not just for Jesus but for all. - This may
all seem very strange and improper, even disgusting to American
Puritan sensibilities, but it really is no less weird and no less
spiritual than meditating that one is "washed in the blood
of Christ" or eats the body of Christ.
A beautiful article in the on-line journal of the "National Museums
Liverpool" explains the connection between Mary's milk and Christ's
blood. Medieval Christians recognized that since Jesus' body grew
from and was nurtured by Mary's body, one cannot be separated from
It's all about union, union with God in body and spirit.
According to Ean Begg Our Lady of Saint Bernard was hidden during the
Revolution, but others say she was burnt and replaced. Either way, many
miracles have been attributed to this very special Madonna in all her
*1: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon For the Feast of the
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also called On the Aqueduct Of Divine
Grace). In: Sermons for the seasons and principal festivals of the year,
volume 3, The Carroll Press, Westminster, MD 1950, p. 284ff.
*2: Marie-France Boyer, The Cult of the Virgin: Offerings, Ornaments and
Festivals, Thames & Hudson, London: 2000, pp.26-30
*3: Quoted in on line article of the National Museums Liverpool: ‘Rest on
the Flight into Egypt’ Here's the URL, but you're better off googleing it.
*4: E.g. in Rho, Italy a painting cried tears of blood in 1583, in La Salette,
France an apparition cried tears in 1846, in Syracuse, Sicily a statue cried
tears in 1953, in Akita Japan a statue cried tears in 1973, in Naju, South
Korea a statue cried tears of blood in 1985, in Cuenca Ecuador a statue
cried tears in 1988. For many more examples in modern times visit: www.crystalinks.com/weepingstatues.html
*5: Op cit. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk