The Persuasive Power of a Mother’s Breast: The Most Desperate Act of the Virgin Mary’s Advocacy
Salvador Ryan (Dept. of History, NUI, Maynooth)
Studia Hibernica, No. 32 (2002/2003), pp. 59-74
Depictions of the Madonna and Child,which for centuries have adorned Catholic churches and burial grounds, tend to evoke warm responses from the majority who choose to be hold what appears to be an idyllic and peaceful scene. A variation of this theme, such as the portrayal of the Virgin Mary breast-feeding her Divine Son, although less common, has also claimed great popularity among iconographers from the first centuries of Christianity. However, some popular late-medieval interpretationsof the latter depiction suggest that far from being a representation of a serene mother and child at one, the iconographydepicts a veritable battle of wills. The mother (Mary) suckles her Son (Christ) in a desperate effort to appease His anger, thushoping to offset the terriblejudgement. He plans to impose on humanity.
This paper explores the effect of the Virgin Mary’s breasts on Christ the Judge, as understood inEuropean popular piety of the late medieval period, and more specifically in Ireland. In the first instance, Mary employs her breasts to feed and nourish the infant Christ, calming His anger and setting Him at peace. However, when this method fails, she chooses to employ a more radical use of her breasts in a desperate effort to attain mercy for humanity in her role as Advocate, as discussed below. It is this second method, which is treated at greatest length here. An elaborate gesture of the Virgin Mary before her Son, popularised as a motif from the twelfth century onwards, is firstly traced to its pre-Christian roots. In addition, its subsequent manifestation across Europe,which includes an appear ance in sixteenth-century Gaelic Irish bardic poetry, is explored. What results is an examination of one of themost fascinating reli giousmotifs of the latemedieval period.