Christopher T. Richards

Milk and Paint: The Virgin Mother as a Problem of Representation

As the source of God’s material embodiment in the Incarnation, the Virgin posed many problems to medieval and early-modern theologians. Forming Christ’s flesh first in the womb and then at the breast, the Virgin Mother’s gradual creation of God as matter implied his imperfection and temporariness and, perhaps most troubling, the Virgin as a creator of the divine. My paper argues that medieval and renaissance artworks involve analogous problematics as transformations of matter into images of God, bearing in mind that various bodily fluids were used to make paint—including milk. As such, images of the Virgin breastfeeding offer meta-pictorial reflections on representation and materiality. I will suggest that premodern culture understood the Virgin Mother as an artist who “impresses” Christ with her image or even “painted” him, to borrow language from fourteenth-century Tuscan childcare manuals. Images of the Virgin breastfeeding theorize a decidedly premodern conception of materiality and images.