Breastfeeding in Public? — Colbert Cairns
By Emily Colbert Cairns | Published on November 10, 2021
Bartolomé de Cardenas “Bermejo’s” oil painting, Virgen de la leche, c. 1465 portrays a seated Virgin Mary nursing her child. The Virgin is depicted in this work as a humble mother and a regal figure; looking lovingly at her child. Despite the serenity of the scene, the politics of church and state that surround this painting urge us to consider a tension between the centrality of the Virgin’s figure within the Iberian Empire and the regulation of her body, her child’s body and in extension the Christian nation. Two discourses, one of Catholic identity building, and the other seeking to enforce ideal mothering habits, dialogue with each other. Simultaneously, early modern writers were interested in normalizing and enforcing motherly habits. In my essay “Breastfeeding in Public? Representations of Breastfeeding in Early Modern Spain” I consider the medical treatise by Mallorcan physician Damian Carbón, Libro del arte de las comadres o madrinas, del Regimiento de las preñadas y paridas y de los niños (1541) and the behavior manual Coloquios matrimoniales (1571) by Pedro de Luján, alongside the thirteenth century Cantiga 48 from the Cantigas de Santa María, La virgen de la leche (1465) by Bermejo and Virgen con el Niño (c.1500) by Pedro Berruguete. These works help understand how breastmilk and breastfeeding was understood as both a social and health practice by different audiences within Iberian society. In focusing on the late-medieval period (13th century) through the early modern period (16th century), I begin to explore the feminization of impurity in an early modern Iberian context.
As I continue with this project, I am particularly interested in the reception of images depicting the breastfeeding Virgin Mary by minority figures. As Jews and Muslims do not see images within their own religions practice and lived within an increasingly Christianizing world, I would like to know how they responded a world replete with a nursing Virgin.
This type of book helps us to understand a continuity about modern day medical practices and practices concerning the body that trace back throughout history. Many of the themes that we see emerging in the chapters deal with topics that are relevant today. In particular, the female body has always been commented upon and this has not changed!