Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Leonardo da Vinci
Italian Painter, Sculptor and Architect (High Renaissance)

Madonna Litta , 1490-1491

(Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia)

I suspect there is something trinitarian in the depiction of the Christ child at the Madonna's breast. There must be theological justifications for Mary's devoted gaze toward the Christ child and the baby's averted gaze from her breast. The baby's posture evokes Christ's naked body being gently removed from the cross as it contorts and needs support, cleaned up of any blood or gore. The baby practically nurses himself as he supports Mary's breast with his hand. The Christ child's hair must be a sign of the times. Who can't resist a curly-haired tot? It also shows that this is no bald-headed infant. This is a toddler. Why this is important, who knows. Perhaps because it hints at Jesus' power. He is no baby. He can do it himself.

Personally I love that Mary is wearing a nursing shirt. (Did those exist in the Renaissance?)

I went in search of breast-feeding images because I have been thinking about how such depictions influenced my own practice. To be fair, the Leonardo image above is not primarily about breast-feeding, of course. Nursing serves a larger purpose by telling a story about Mary and the Christ child. Yet before I had Iza the dominant image I had of breast-feeding involved something similar to what you see above: the baby cradled in the mother's arms and the requisite adoring gaze of mother toward child. The baby nicely, quietly-dare I say serenely--rested in the mother's arms. The mother's arms felt no fatigue. Rather she was suffused with motherly love and gentle thoughts.

I am not quite sure how or when I developed this romanticized notion. Certainly I grew up exposed to nursing mothers and have fond memories of attending La Leche League meetings as a young girl, primarily because they had a buffet, which I found terribly exciting at the age of four. My naiveté ironically may be the product of my wordly experience. I waited until I was thirty-three to have my child. Perhaps the years intervening between my childhood immersed in a nursing culture and the time that I become a mother allowed my imagination to turn breast-feeding into a caricature. Seriously, the first six weeks of learning how to breast-feed were more difficult than labor and delivery.

Forget serenity. (Well, those moments do happen. Hooray for prolactin and oxytocin, calming hormones produced while nursing.) What I learned is that those little, hot bodies are first and foremost hungry at the breast. There is commotion. Rooting, drooling, dripping, gagging, crying, whimpering, etc. As the baby gets older and her hunger is both for food and comfort, there is rolling, pinching, scratching, tugging, and let-me-take-your-nipple-with-me-as-I-turn-my-head-and-check-out-who-just-walked-in-the-door fun.

In the beginning, mama must sit until the sitting takes on a new, possibly unexplored, state of Zen.

Hooray for the iPhone. Mama can read a novel! read the New York Times! Facebook! all while nursing.

And then mama discovers nursing while lying down in bed. Wow. And she thinks: I will never sit up to nurse again. And then she discovers that you can do the "lean down" and offer the top breast too without having to get up and move to the other side of the baby.

And then mama discovers that you can nurse with the baby in a sling while waiting in line to board an airplane. Hands-free.

And then mama discovers that you can nurse with the baby in an Ergo carrier. In this carrier the baby sits up and straddles your waist. The baby nurses while sitting up. I had no idea this was possible. Leonardo did not portray this. Possibly the trinitarian symbolism would have been thwarted.

If I were an artist, here is the composition I would arrange:

Mama calming baby before they get into the bath. Mama sitting on the edge of the bathtub, water running, a few select bath toys bobbing around, baby sitting on her lap so that they are belly to belly and the baby's face is breast level and nursing, both delightfully in the buff, naturally. There is forgiving lighting, perhaps. The mother may look (gasp) tired or (gasp) bored, but hopefully looks powerful and protective. I am thinking white ceramic bath with baby blue tile work, the grout a bit mildewed.


Mama walking down Newbury Street, baby nursing in the Ergo carrier while Mama reads from her iPhone. Possibly she is holding the hand of her toddler too. She is definitely wearing a hat to cover her atrocious hair. It should be near dusk, after nap time and before dinner. The light a definite golden-pink, gentle, and forgiving.

Unlike Leonardo's painting, these images would be first of all about nursing. If they manage to evoke an awareness of grace and a glimmer of love made incarnate, so be it. And if they break open a new mom's imagination about the possibilities of breast-feeding positions, well, Amen.

1 comment:

J.K.Kelley said...

Now this is amazing: