About the artwork
This oil painting on a wooden panel, painted about 1510, is one of several versions of this event.It shows the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child seated on a throne-like structure with little angels holding a canopy above them. Mary is dressed in sumptuous fabrics, with gold brocaded cuffs and a dress trimmed with seed pearls. The Christ child holds a silk or lawn cloth edged with gold letters, including part of the word ‘Maria’ – the latin for Mary. The text as a whole on the cloth may be the famous annunciation words spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel telling her she is to be the mother of Christ. In the background is St Joseph gathering fruit from a tree. Behind him is what appears to be a fortified bridge over a river, a castle and some mountains beyond. In the right foreground is a ceramic pot holding an Iris - a symbol of royalty - and the flower columbine - a sign of the Holy Ghost.
The painting is one that was probably made for domestic userather than for any church or other ecclesiastical setting. It is not known who made the picture. It is suggested that, although it was made in northern Europe, the inspiration lay ultimately in some Italian picture. This is because the way Mary and the Christ-child are painted is more typical of how such figures were painted in Italy around about the year 1500 – particularly by northern Italian artists influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.
The overall message of the picture is to do with the special status of the body of the Virgin Mary.The Virgin Mary according to Catholic belief was immaculately conceived. That is to say, although she was born in the normal way her conception was divine and as a consequence her physical body was incorruptible and her soul untainted by original sin. Mary is the most perfect created creature next to Jesus. Her body was therefore a pure and perfect receptacle for the bearing of the saviour. It was also believed that when Mary died she ascended in both body and soul into heaven.
The picture shows Mary breast-feeding the Christ child.This image - the so-called ‘Maria Lactans’ was one of the most popular images of the Virgin Mary made during the 14th and 15th centuries. The theme probably originated in Egypt, where the god Horus is depicted being suckled by the goddess Isis. There are also several ancient Greek and Roman mythological episodes in which goddesses feed gods. To modern eyes it seems perhaps a little forthright for a religious picture, even perhaps in slightly bad taste. Indeed it is a type of picture that went out of fashion from about 1550 onwards, although it was not in any way officially proscribed by the Catholic Church.
In this painting, Mary is feeding the Christ child with her sacred milk. The milk will be turned into flesh as it nourishes his body. Milk thus becomes blood. It was common in medieval and Renaissance scientific thinking that a woman's menstrual blood ceased during breast-feeding because her blood was being transformed in some way into milk. Mary's milk differs from that of ordinary women because her body is perfect. Christ's blood, which will later be spilled on the cross, is thus directly linked to Mary's blood. One becomes the other.
The contemplation of this picture by the devout 16th-century spectator might also have involved reflection on other sacred writings that mention milk. Milk was a much-used image to suggest the eternal spiritual nourishment flowing from the Church. For example, St Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1153) in one of his sermons stated:
“we approach the altar of God and pray, and, if we persevere, despite our own dryness and tepidity, grace will overpower us, our bosom will swell, love will fill our hearts…and the milk of sweetness will overflow everywhere in a torrent.”
The connection of Mary’s milk with healing was also well established – with various miraculous visions attested to in which Mary had appeared and given drops of her milk to cure individuals. There were several relics - phials of Mary’s milk - that miraculously liquefied on certain feast days. Walsingham, Chartres, Venice, Paris and Naples were just some of the places that had such relics. The so-called Milk Grotto can still be visited in Bethlehem - the place where a few drops of Mary’s milk had fallen when she was feeding Jesus. The Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote mockingly of what he thought was catholic superstition;
“There is no town so small, no convent so mean that it does not display some of the Virgin’s milk. There is so much that if the holy Virgin had been a cow, or a wet nurse all her life she would have been hard put to it to yield such a great quantity.”
The theme of sacred food is continued in the background.Joseph is gathering dates from a palm tree that has miraculously bent down towards him. This miracle was at the instigation of the Christ-child. It is an episode described in the apocryphal life of the Virgin Mary mentioned in the so-called Gospel of the pseudo St Matthew and is also in The Golden Legend. Both texts are no longer regarded as orthodox or reliable by the Catholic Church. William Roscoe originally owned this picture and many others in this part of the Walker's collection. He was a Liverpool banker, philanthropist, radical politician, poet biographer and collector. He bought the picture some time after 1813. Roscoe probably paid about £6 for it. It was sold in his own sale in 1819 for just under £38 and presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution and later deposited in the Walker in 1893. Prior to being in this country the picture was in a Sicilian collection. Its attribution during the early 19th century was to Albrecht Durer - a convenient catch-all name to whom almost any northern European picture of the early 16th century could be ascribed.
The underdrawing for the picture can be seen showing through in some places. The face of the Christ-child shows parallel lines of drawing that models the roundedness of the child’s cheek. Mary’s little finger includes a ghostly top joint – evidence that the artist decided to change it’s position. The overpaint has become semi-transparent. A full size drawing may have existed for the figure of Mary and Jesus and been used for other similar pictures. This version is the only one that includes Joseph.