Mythology is filled with an array of outlandish and far-fetched stories. Christianity is no exception. One of the most surprising, at least for me, is the story of the 12th century monk, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk. Even more curious are the numerous artworks inspired by this story.
Born near Dijon in 1090, Bernard of Clairvaux was a monk remembered for his inspirational sermons. He also advocated for the Second Crusade , an ardent believer that Muslims were the children of Satan. I guess the part about “love thy neighbor” wasn’t his strong suit. But one of the most surprising stories related to Saint Bernard is that of being splattered with the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
Often called the Lactation of Saint Bernard, legend has it that when he challenged the Virgin to monstra te esse matrem , meaning “show yourself to be a mother,” her statue or painting came to life, grabbed her breast and squirted milk into his eye or mouth (depending on which version you follow). Some claim this gave him wisdom, while other accounts assert that it cured his eye infection. Alternative reports state that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernard in a vision.
Saint Bernard and the Virgin by Alonso Cano. ( Public domain )
The tale of Saint Bernard and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk became exceptionally popular in religious iconography and has been depicted many times in devotional artwork over the centuries. Some of these are uplifting works of art, while others range from hilarious to downright creepy.
This imagery came to obsess Flemish, Dutch and German audiences in the 15th century, inspired by the idea of religious artwork miraculously coming to life. Renaissance Quarterly highlighted that although Saint Bernard preferred the use of the spoken word and music rather than visual signs of devotion, he did use the theme of milk in his writing as a way to represent the nurturing nature of religious scripture.
15th-century depiction of the Lactatio Bernardi, entitled Virgin and Child with Saint Bernard, from the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne. ( Public domain )
The 1290 San Bernardo altar piece from the Church of the Knights Templar in Palma de Mallorca is one of the first, with a veritable fountain of milk gushing into Saint Bernard’s mouth. Some portrayals of the legend show Saint Bernard suckling directly from the Virgin Mary’s breast. Meanwhile, in another 15th-century depiction of the Virgin and Child with Saint Bernard from the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne, Saint Bernard looks like a pedophile or sexual offender exposed by the #MeToo movement.
In an oil painting by Alonso Cano from the mid-17th century, on display at the Museo del Prado , a statue of the Virgin Mary produces a jet of milk from her breast and aims it from an incredible distance into his mouth. When breastfeeding I never mastered such impressive technique.
Top image: Saint Bernard and the Virgin by Alonso Cano. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard