The breastfeeding Virgin Mary
AROUND THIS time last year, I wrote an article about our clan’s Lenten tradition of the pabasa (“‘Pabasa’: Lenten ritual and family tradition,” Opinion, 2/26/15). In the article, I mentioned a rare wooden image of the Blessed Mother breastfeeding the Infant Jesus. I also narrated how my grandfather accidentally found the image among trash along a riverbank many years ago and how it has been the center of our pabasa ever since.
Reactions to my article were varied. Some of them simply asked why they seldom see an image or statue of the Blessed Virgin breastfeeding the Baby Jesus. Others, however, expressed surprise: “Is this for real?” “I have never seen one like this!” “Is it approved by the Catholic Church?”
And so, I did a quick research and found out that the image was known as Virgen de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Milk and Happy Delivery), and that it first came into prominence in Madrid, Spain, sometime during the 16th century. But for some reasons, it slowly disappeared from the sacred art scene.
Writer Margaret Miles offers possible reasons behind the image’s disappearance in her book “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750.” She traces the origin of the breastfeeding image all the way from early Christianity until its disappearance after the Renaissance.
Here in the Philippines, we all know that the devotion to the Virgin Mary under her various titles (Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, etc.), has been flourishing since the Spanish times. It is interesting to note, however, that popular interest and devotion to the Virgen de la Leche seems to have appeared only sometime around 2000, due mainly to the efforts of a group of Marian devotees and advocates of breastfeeding.
It all began when Remedios Ticzon Gonzales of Mandaluyong City inherited from her uncle an heirloom—an antique statue of the Blessed Virgin. Apparently, the family had kept it away from public view because “the Blessed Mother is shown in an unusual pose—seated on the floor and lovingly breastfeeding the infant Jesus.”
Inspired by its religious significance and beauty, Gonzales decided to propagate the spiritual devotion to the statue. She then displayed it for public viewing for the first time.
In the year 2002, with the help of Fr. Nick Blanquisco of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Mandaluyong, she finally obtained permission from Jaime Cardinal Sin and formed the Our Lady of La Leche Movement to propagate the devotion. The group adopted Oct. 11 as its feast day.
In 2011, Marc Dalma, a Filipino Marian devotee who owns a similar 4-ft statue, published online a well-researched article, “Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto.” Dalma said that he wanted to help spread the devotion, citing the dogma of Mary, Mother of God, which was defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 as the theological basis for the image. According to him, the image must have also been inspired by the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. As proof, he cited still existing artworks by famous painters in the past, showing the Blessed Mother with the Baby Jesus suckling at her exposed breast while St. Joseph rests in a corner.
Today, it appears that efforts to propagate the devotion to the breastfeeding Virgin Mary in the country have not taken off, due to a combination of ecclesiastical, religious and cultural reasons.
An “unofficial ban” by the Church is cited to explain why the devotion has not gone beyond a couple of parishes in Metro Manila today.
Inquirer columnist Rina Jimenez David, a staunch advocate of breastfeeding, wrote: “But hostility to a mother’s breastfeeding in public may come to an end soon, if the Vatican is to have its way. L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Holy See whose contents have the Pope’s imprimatur, have called for the lifting of an unofficial ban on artworks depicting the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Baby Jesus” (“Proudly breastfeeding,” Opinion, 8/19/08).
The ambivalent reaction of some Catholics to the exposed breast of the Virgin has also been pointed out as another reason. UP chancellor and anthropologist Michael Tan, another Inquirer columnist, described his observations while viewing various images in a Marian exhibit at Harrison Plaza: “The most striking among these images is labeled Nuestra Señora de La Leche, Our Lady of Milk. With most of the images, people would stop, pause, some apparently praying. Others would touch the image, probably appealing for something, or simply showing veneration. With Our Lady of Milk, people would look very quickly and move on. Some seemed almost embarrassed” (“Our Lady of Milk,” Opinion, 10/8/10).
Tan concludes: “False modesty seems to have prevented this image to become more popular. Note how even the word ‘leche’ has, sadly, become an expletive.”
Lent began last Feb. 10. Our clan will gather once again for our traditional pabasa before an image that others had dumped as trash and apparently consider profane. We, however, will continue to consider it God’s gift to our family.
And as a travel blogger (ajpoliquit.wordpress.com), writing about his “discovery” of the image at the Manila Cathedral, says, “Our Lady of La Leche beautifully conveyed Mary’s humanity… the act of breastfeeding averted attention to her actual (read: earthly) role in the life of Jesus—as a vessel for His physical birth and nurturing.”
And so this Lent, this same image will remind us of the human side of the Mother and Child whose love for all of us brought them to Calvary—for the Son to die on the cross and for the Mother to become the mother of us all.
Danilo G. Mendiola is retired from corporate work and now serves with his wife in the Marriage Prep Ministry of their parish in Quezon City.
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