The Virgin Mary’s breast milk has been the subject of veneration for centuries and even today couples battling infertility often imbue it with miraculous powers. This is especially true at the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, where faith and fertility go hand in hand.
The Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, Palestine, is dedicated to the divine maternity of the Virgin Mary. Both Christian and Muslim believers claim that when the Holy Family found refuge during King Herod ’s Massacre of the Innocents , Mary spilled some drops of her breast milk which turned the cave’s walls to a chalky white.
People still drink the powder of the limestone rock of the cave walls, known as Virgin Mary milk powder, to cure their infertility. The faithful often share stories of miraculous births after praying at the grotto, reported the BBC. At the entrance of the Chapel of the Milk Grotto there are hundreds of letters describing these miracles sent in from all over the world.
The interior of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, from where Virgin Mary milk powder can be obtained as a supposed cure for infertility. ( Renáta Sedmáková / Adobe Stock)
These days, the underground cave is filled with altars and artworks of the Virgin Mary and her child. But the site has been a place of homage since the 4th century AD, with a church being built in the Byzantine era. Pope Gregory XI granted permission to enlarge the church in the 14th century and the current Chapel of the Milk Grotto was built in the 19th century.
While the National Catholic Register reported that the milk powder “can only be obtained by personally visiting the shrine,” the internet tells another story. A variety of websites, including Etsy and eBay, tout the availability of sachets of the stuff, which users are supposed to mix with water or milk before consuming and praying for a miraculous birth.
Sachets of Virgin Mary milk powder are said to have miraculous properties able to cure infertility. (Anton Diaz / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Like many of the relics in circulation, the whole thing seems more than a little immoral. Convincing desperate sufferers of infertility that they need to take a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and consume Virgin Mary milk powder (a.k.a. limestone) seems to me like exploitation. For the hundreds of infertile women who managed to get pregnant after visiting the grotto, it’s faith.
John Calvin, one of the most influential proponents of the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century, was not a fan of religious relics . He even wrote The Treatise About Relics , in which he made fun of the cult of relics, including of course the Virgin Mary’s breast milk, describing the whole sorry affair as “deceitful.”
“With regard to the milk, there is not perhaps a town, a convent, or nunnery, where it is not shown in large or small quantities,” decried Calvin. “Indeed, had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers in various parts.”
Top image: Nursing Madonna (Madonna Lactans) by anonymous master from the School of Bruges. At the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, Virgin Mary milk powder is sold as a cure for infertility. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard