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Why is the Virgin Mary feeding St. Bernard with breast milk?

LACTATION OF SAINT BENARD
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There is much symbolism behind the popular medieval image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding a saint.

In medieval art, it was common to depict the Blessed Virgin Mary with breasts exposed, manually expressing milk from them. On occasion there would be a saint on the receiving end of the milk, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

This image of St. Bernard nursing at the breasts of the Virgin Mary is due to a popular legend that is connected to his life.

St. Bernard was a devout Cistercian monk during the 12th century who had a deep love of the Virgin Mary. His name is often connected to the Memorare, one of the most popular Marian prayers of all time, though he did not compose this prayer.

According to various medieval stories of his life, St. Bernard had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Author Richard Storrs recounts the story in his book about St. Bernard.

[T]he Holy Virgin had appeared to him, attended by saints, in his sore sickness, and with gentle touch had relieved his distress, removed his disease, and checked the fierce flow of saliva from his lips, it was that those lips might freely speak the wisest and most commanding words then heard in Europe.

A more extreme form which the legend subsequently took has been immortalized by Murillo in a celebrated picture in the Royal Gallery at Madrid, where the Virgin Mother is represented as appearing to Bernard while seated among his books, and causing milk from her breast to drop upon his lips, not only to heal them but to endow them with celestial eloquence, while cherubs surround her in an effulgence of heavenly glory.

This episode is often called “The Lactation of St. Bernard,” and is usually depicted as a stream of milk going into Bernard’s mouth, though sometimes the stories relate that the Virgin Mary gave him three drops of her milk.

LACTATION OF SAINT BENARD
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo | Public Domain

The story and its subsequent depiction was not strange for medieval Christians, as breastfeeding was a common fact of life and traditionally associated with a person being fed both physically and spiritually. Having the Virgin Mary expose her breasts to feed Christian faithful was not scandalous in any way and was meant to signify a deeper spiritual reality.

Breastfeeding was often spiritually connected in the Old Testament to the reception of wisdom or God’s blessings.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her;
that you may suck and be satisfied
with her consoling breasts;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from the abundance of her glory. (Isaiah 66:10-11)

St. Paul in the New Testament similarly links breastfeeding with the passing on of the Christian faith.

But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

In recent years Pope Francis has encouraged women to breastfeed their children, linking it to giving children a gift of themselves.

Babies have their own dialect. If one starts to cry the others will follow, like in an orchestra. If they start doing the “concert,” it’s because they’re not comfortable. Either they’re too hot, or they’re not comfortable, or they’re hungry. If they’re hungry, breastfeed them, without fear, feed them, because that’s the language of love.

The image of St. Bernard nursing at the breasts of the Virgin Mary is a piece of artwork that has much history and beauty with a spiritual symbolism behind it that reminds us of the dignity of the human body.

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