Storia dell’Arte 111, Maggio – Agosto 2005
Antonia K. Fondaras
“Our Mother the Holy Wisdom of God”: Nursing in Botticelli’s Bardi Altarpiece
Over the last twenty years, the popular Quattrocento motif of the Madonna lactans or nursing Virgin, has been treated to a number of serious critical approaches. Barbara Lane, for instance, has focused on the many works in which the Christ Child turns away from the proffered breast and towards the spectator. She sees Christ rejecting the breast, which is offered instead to the viewer as a sign of Mary’s willing intercession. Lane’s argument is in line with a widespread iconographic approach that privileges the intercessory function of the Renaissance altarpiece –particularly paintings of the Virgin and saints– and the spiritual concerns of the individual patron. On the other hand, Margaret R. Miles and, more recently, Megan Holmes, have focused on the ambiguity –to artist and viewer alike– of the Madonna’s bared and nourishing breast, at once object of male desire and source of female power. While noting the likely polyvalence of the nursing image, both authors emphasize the presence of an erotic subtext, one so pervasive that other possible meanings remain tentative and ever subject to the “slippage” that will reveal the underlying erotic appeal of the image. What both approaches share is a reluctance to treat the Madonna Lactans as an autonomous symbolic image, one that introduces a specific iconographic allusion into the work in which it appears.