When was the last time you asked for the Virgin Mary to intercede in your life and in return received a few drops of milk from her breast? Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) knelt one day in front of a statue of the Virgin and Child and asked her, “Show yourself to be a mother.” While in a dream-like trance, Mary responded by pressing her breast near his lips and nourishing him with her milk. Is anyone else asking, “WTF?!?!”
Simon Marmion, Saint Bernard’s Vision of the Virgin and Child, about 1475-1480, tempera colors and gold on parchment. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
This image raises a few noteworthy WTF moments from Saint Bernard’s life prior to the vision. First, dude, you’re an abbot — did you miss the day in abbot-school when they taught the Gospel accounts that the Virgin would bear a child? And you asked her for a sign of her motherhood? Evidently monastic repression leads to visions of lactation. Second, it’s sad that your mother died when you were young, but this “vision” of the Virgin lactating in your mouth suggests some creepy mommy issues.
The roots of the account of this vision are obscure but the image of Mary giving Saint Bernard breast milk is a standard attribute of the saint. While Marmion’s painting is excuisitely beautiful, other versions range from hilarity to totally disturbing.
Pardon the color: Master of the Life of the Virgin, The Virgin and Child with Saint Bernard, c. 1480, oil on panel. Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne
In the image above, Saint Bernard’s hand seems inappropriately close to the infant Christ. When all’s said and done, before judging Saint Bernard’s vision it’s important to understand that in the Renaissance, milk was thought to be produced by a combination of blood and heat. So Bernard receiving the Virgin’s milk is similar to Christians bathing in Christ’s blood (come back soon for a post on that image).
Here’s a final image for your enjoyment.
Alonso Cano, The Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard, c. 1650, oil on panel. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid