The Thinking 

A Child at the Breast

May 31, 2012


Virgin and Child, Hans Memling (1475) Metropolitan Museum

HERE’S a forthright fifteenth-century painting by Hans Memling of Jesus Christ at the breast. Why is this so radically different from the recent photos of nursing women that have gained international attention, leaving aside the obvious fact that this painting represents the imaginary vision of an artist?

There is one overwhelming difference, and that is the gravity of Mary’s expression, a mixture of serenity, love and sorrow. Also, the tender way she clasps the Holy Child, as if he is a priceless treasure, is entirely different from the manner of the mother on Time magazine who stared self-assertively at the camera while her older son stood on a stool, or the soldier who appeared in a military uniform while feeding her daughters, or Crystal Scott, below, who feeds her daughter in public on a street and gazes with heavily blackened eyes at the camera with what appears to be an explicit come-on. Mary is all-encompassing maternity. The others are flagrant show-offs.

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