Mythology, with its kaleidoscope of eccentric tales, finds its place even in Christianity. Among the peculiar narratives, the 12th-century monk, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, takes center stage with an unexpected twist involving the Virgin Mary’s breast milk. What makes it even more intriguing is the plethora of artworks inspired by this uncommon story.
Saint Bernard: The Monk with a Curious Story
Born near Dijon in 1090, Bernard of Clairvaux is remembered for his compelling sermons and his advocacy for the Second Crusade, fervently believing that Muslims were the offspring of Satan. Despite his unconventional stance on loving thy neighbor, one of the most astonishing stories surrounding Saint Bernard is the peculiar incident of being showered with the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
The Lactation of Saint Bernard
Legend has it that Saint Bernard, challenging the Virgin Mary with the words “monstra te esse matrem” (show yourself to be a mother), witnessed her statue or painting come to life. In a bizarre turn of events, she grabbed her breast and squirted milk into his eye or mouth, depending on the version. Some claim this bestowed wisdom upon him, while others assert it miraculously cured his eye infection. Alternative reports suggest that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernard in a vision.
Artistic Reverberations Through the Centuries
The tale of Saint Bernard and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk found resonance in religious iconography, inspiring countless devotional artworks over the centuries. Some are uplifting, while others range from hilarity to downright creepiness.
Artistic Obsession in the 15th Century
Flemish, Dutch, and German audiences in the 15th century became particularly captivated by the notion of religious artwork springing to life. Renaissance Quarterly notes that although Saint Bernard favored the spoken word and music over visual signs of devotion, he used the theme of milk in his writing to symbolize the nurturing nature of religious scripture.
A Fountain of Milk: Artistic Depictions
The 1290 San Bernardo altar piece from the Church of the Knights Templar in Palma de Mallorca stands as one of the earliest depictions, featuring a fountain of milk gushing into Saint Bernard’s mouth. Some portrayals show Saint Bernard suckling directly from the Virgin Mary’s breast. However, in a 15th-century depiction from the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne, Saint Bernard’s portrayal takes an unsettling turn, resembling a character exposed by the #MeToo movement.
An Artistic Extravaganza in the 17th Century
In an oil painting by Alonso Cano from the mid-17th century at the Museo del Prado, the Virgin Mary, in statue form, produces a jet of milk from her breast, aiming it from an incredible distance into Saint Bernard’s mouth. Such artistic depictions elicit both awe and amusement.
In conclusion, the peculiar tale of Saint Bernard and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk, though steeped in the fantastical, has left an indelible mark on religious art. From uplifting to eyebrow-raising, the artistic interpretations of this unusual event continue to captivate audiences across centuries.