Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.


Fine Arts

Committee Chair

Fulton, Christopher B.


Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint--Art; Breastfeeding in art


This dissertation is an analysis of Italian late medieval and Renaissance peoples’ response to the Madonna lactans image. Although the images that comprise this type are similar in that Mary holds Christ at her breast, they vary widely in iconography and context. We shall use reception and response theory to determine how the image functioned for spectators. Determining how different groups responded to the motif is facilitated by applying an interpretive community model. Hence a group’s interpretive principles connect these communities and inform their reception of the image. We argue that although context and communities are diverse, most people believed the image to be a conduit to the divine. Our study is divided into four chapters covering a late medieval through Renaissance history of breastfeeding, devotion, the motif as an altarpiece, and reception by Renaissance people. Chapter one gives a historical overview of the advice concerning breastfeeding to which medievals were subjected. In light of sacerdotal advice, we argue that the Church used the image to promote maternal feeding. We also consider wet nurses as a community and audience. Chapter two draws on social and historical inquiries to explore public and private devotion. We highlight the Madonna lactans as an intercessor. While chapter one and two provide a historical and social foundation, the next two chapters consider different interpretive communities’ experiential viewing. Chapter three argues that the late medieval altarpiece image was more than an aesthetic illusion for churchgoers, finding that the image was believed to have sacramental value. Theories about medieval vision are applied to viewing religious rites with images. Chapter four delves into several communities’ interpretive principles. First, in light of its increased naturalism, we argue against a prurient reading of the image by applying scientific studies, an iconographic analysis, and period laws. Second, we find that nuns perceived the image to be a means to intimacy with Christ. One nun’s desire for contemplation before the image was so ardent, she drew it for her private edification, at great personal risk. Finally, we argue that when the viewer held the interpretive power, lay people embraced the image’s intercessory message.