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Bitter Milk: The Vasa Menstrualis and the Cannibal(ized) Virgin

Bitter Milk: The Vasa Menstrualis and the Cannibal(ized) Virgin

By Merrall Llewelyn Price

College Literature, Vol.28:1 (2008)

Introduction: In a series of strangely compelling photographs first shown in New York in 1990, artist-photographer Cindy Sherman appropriates early modern portraiture by posing in mimetic tableau, including in her work several depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Whether resplendent in tiara and brocade, coifed and beaded, or homespun and humble, Mary’s primary incarnation in these simulacra is that of the Maria lactans, either breastfeeding the infant Christ or expressing the milk of mercy to the starving Christian soul of the viewer. Her clothing is decorously parted and a single breast is revealed, indicating the pure source of the first nourishment to pass the lips of the savior.

However, Sherman’s photographs make visible a phenomenon easy to accept in painting and sculpture, but made strange in its importation into a contemporary and naturalistic medium. In each, she wears a prosthetic breast that juts from below her collarbone, or is disproportionately cylindrical, or abnormally spherical in shape and presentation. With this anatomical peculiarity Sherman is not distorting traditional Marian iconography, but rather adhering to its conventions. For in most late medieval and early modern images of the lactating Virgin, her breasts follow a convention of non-realism–most commonly, a single small but perfectly spherical breast seems to protrude from the collarbone or the shoulder, with no suggestion of a second breast beneath the clothing. It is tempting to attribute Mary’s peculiarities to an innocence of the female anatomy, I but contemporary classical or Old Testament nudes suffer no such distortion–even those which appear in the same frame as the lactating Virgin, such as in the Italian altarpiece Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve. In this work, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and attributed to Carlo da Camarino, c. 1400, a semi-naked Eve reclines in profile at the bottom of the image, contemplating the sight of the Virgin nursing her child. Eve’s right breast is full, taut, and naturalistic. The madonna’s right breast is a tiny round protuberance precariously attached to the breastbone.

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