Breastfeeding in the Prado: Religious, Mythological, and Pagan Roots

Don’t worry! This isn’t a too-much-information personal anecdote… just some observations I made regarding the very frequent and detailed depictions of breastfeeding in the artwork gracing the Prado’s walls.

Having initially visited Madrid’s Museo del Prado in 2001 for my two-week “tour” of Spain after graduating high school, then making a brief stop there while studying abroad in Spain in 2004, I was looking forward to visiting again this summer. While I had always admired the masterpieces of Goya and Velázquez (“Las meninas“, for example), I was sure I would appreciate some of the lesser-known pieces much more after spending the past 10 years studying Spanish literary and cultural history for my PhD. I was correct – now I recognized Velázquez’s portraits of Felipe IV and Conde Duque de Olivares without having to read the descriptions; I had a new appreciation for Francisco de Zurbarán’s renditions of Hercules and their curious homoeroticism (well, according to my analyses!); and I thoroughly enjoyed studying the incredibly detailed and even “futuristic” works of El Bosco with an eye towards their influence in early 20th century surrealism – it’s incredible to think that “Jardín de las delicias” [Garden of Earthly Delights] (below) was painted around 1500! Go to the Prado’s site (click here!) to explore a high-definition image that allows you to zoom in on the most intricate details of this amazing triptych.

File:El jardín de las Delicias, de El Bosco.jpg

El Bosco – “Jardín de las delicias” [Garden of Earthly Delights] (Netherlands, 1490-1500). Image via wikipedia.

But aside from these strictly “academic” observations of Spanish culture and art history that stemmed largely from my graduate studies and research, I also noticed what seemed to be an excessive quantity of artwork depicting breastfeeding. After two specific paintings caught my attention for their very detailed inclusion of long streams of breastmilk, I began to jot down all the pieces that featured this theme. I ended up with a list of 12 works – 11 paintings and a sculpture. In four days I covered about 80% of the museum – I admittedly skipped over some rooms of sculpture, so there very well could be more. But for now, I’m including these 12 works below with some very brief comments and links to the Prado’s galleries (unless otherwise stated, all images come form the Museo del Prado’s website). I think I’m going to consider this post a public-service – if you ever visit Madrid’s famed museum, you can now use my blog as your own personal guide to “breastfeeding in the Prado”!

You’re welcome.

alonso cano_prado

“San Bernardo y la Virgen” by Alonso Cano (1645-52). Image via Google images.

I’ll start with the first two paintings that made me stop in my tracks. One is based on a religious (Catholic) story, the other on mythology. First (above), Spanish painter Alonso Cano’s “San Bernardo y la Virgen,” was completed between 1642-52. According to the information provided by Javier Portús Pérez on the Prado’s website, Saint Bernard was known for promoting the celebration and worship of the Virgin Mary throughout his life (the cult of the Virgin). As a reward for his devotion, she shares her milk. This was a popular story in Baroque Spain that linked Catholic Marian devotion to a supernatural act. Next (below), Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ “El nacimiento de la vía lactea” (“Birth of the Milky Way”), was completed in 1637. Along with other paintings by Velázquez, this large piece decorated the “Torre de la Parada,” a royal residence of the Spanish monarchy on the outskirts of Madrid. The majority of the scenes illustrated stories of the gods as they were depicted in classic works like Ovid’s poem, “Metamorphosis.” Rubens aimed to capture the moral essence of these stories, as well as the attitudes of the characters. In “Birth of the Milky Way,” Hercules – the son of Jupiter and Alcmena – is placed by his father at the breast of his sleeping wife Juno, so that her breastmilk might make his son immortal. Juno awakens, however, quite displeased, and the milk spilled when she removes the infant from her breast then formed the stars of the Milky Way.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Birth of the Milky Way, 1636-1637.jpg

El nacimiento de la vía láctea (Birth of the Milky Way) by Pedro Pablo [Peter Paul] Rubens (1636-37). Image via Wikipedia.

Several more paintings share the title “La virgen de la leche,” or “The Virgin of Milk.” These were all painted between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – 3 in Spain and one in the Netherlands.

La virgen de la leche_Pedro Berruguete-1500

“La virgen de la leche”, by Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete (1500).

bernard van orley_virgen de la leche

Dutch painter Bernard van Orley’s “La virgen de la leche” (1520).

alvaro de luna_Virgen de la leche

“La virgen de la leche,” Maestro de don Alvaro de Luna (Spain, 1490).See full-size image at the Prado Museum’s 

Maestro bartolome-virgen_de_la_leche

“La virgen de la leche,” painted by Maestro Bartolome (Spain, 1490). Image via wikipedia


In 1517 Pedro Machuca painted “La virgen y las ánimas del Purgatorio” (“The Virgin and the Souls of Purgatory”) that actually includes TWO breasts spilling streams of milk… the milk falls onto the flames below in order to alleviate the suffering of the souls in purgatory. The Prado has a Spanish YouTube video that explains the key aspects of this painting – it would be great to use in a Spanish art history course, as it discusses Machuca’s influences, the composition, and a bit of the controversy surrounding the piece.


“La virgen y las animas del purgatorio” [The Virgin and the Souls of Purgatory], by Spanish painter Pedro Machuca (1517). Image via Wikimedia

Below, the first image is Luis de Morales’ “El Nacimiento de la Virgen” (“The Birth of the Virgin”), which was completed in the 1560s. He depicts the newborn Virgin Mary being fed by her wet-nurse alongside her mother, Saint Anne. The second image below is Jan Provost’s “Virgen y el niño” (The Virgin and Child).

nacimiento de la virgen_luis de morales

“El nacimiento de la Virgen” [The Birth of the Virgin], by Luis de Morales (1590-69). Image via Museo del Prado

Virgen con el nino_Jan provost

Dutch painter Jan Provost’s “La Virgen con el nino” [The Virgin with Child], circa 1500. Image via Google images; Museo del Prado

Both Gerard David and Joachim Patiner illustrated “Descanso en la huída de a Egipto” [The Rest During the Escape to Egypt] in the sixteenth century.

Descanso huida a Egipto_David Gerard

“Descanso en la huida a Egipto” [Rest on the Escape to Egypt], by Dutch painter David Gerard, 1515. Image via Google images; Museo del Prado.

Descanso huida a Egipto_Joachim Patinir

“Descanso en la huida a Egipto” by Dutch painter Joachim Patinir (1518-1520). Image via Google images; Museo del Prado.

Finally, Antonio Solá’s marble sculpture titled “La caridad romana” (“Roman Charity”) was perhaps the most fascinatingly disturbing piece I saw. The sculpture depicts the story of a young woman, Pero, who secretly breastfed her imprisoned father, Cimon, so that he would not die condemned to starvation. When her stealth act of piety is discovered, her father is released and she is celebrated for her compassion and virtue. The story is of pagan origin and had actually been depicted quite frequently in paintings and art during the 15th to 17th centuries. The  juxtaposition of eroticism, maternal care, and incest certainly caused the most gasps from my fellow museum visitors once they read the description of the father-daughter figures.

La caridad romana_antonio sola

Spanish sculptor Antonio Sola’s “La caridad romana” [Roman Charity], completed in 1851. Image via Google images; Museo del Prado.

So, there you have it. Breastfeeding has been celebrated by painters all over the world for centuries – and yet today many women are scorned, mocked, or stigmatized for feeding their babies in public. I recently read an interesting  blog post via a friend’s Facebook where a woman took a photo of herself breastfeeding her child in front of the massive Victoria’s Secret advertisement of a women showing the store’s newest bra – and a lot more breast than the mother! Perhaps that is what caused me to pay particular attention to this theme in the Prado.  I find this topic – the “controversy” of women’s breasts – both fascinating and irritating. As Iris Marion Young has stated in “Breasted Experience (PDF)” breasts are “a scandal for patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality, between love and desire”. In fact, one of my students wrote about this topic for her final paper in my women’s literature course last semester.

All in all, my experience in the Prado this summer has only strengthened my conviction that we stand to learn so much from the study of art, art history, and literature – and not just about cultures of the past, but about our own present day beliefs, values, and anxieties.

Do you know of other famous depictions of breastfeeding, either in religious, secular, or mythological contexts? Have you seen versions of Pero and Cimon’s story? What do you think of “public” breastfeeding in today’s society?



About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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8 Responses to Breastfeeding in the Prado: Religious, Mythological, and Pagan Roots

  1. ensondeluz says:

    Magnífica y bella entrada.

    La lactancia materna es un tema apasionante muy presente en la literatura moral y social desde hace siglos y que es motivo del trabajo de algunos amigos y amigas mías en el terreno socio sanitario en España (les he enviado el enlace a tu post).

    Pero si quieres un cuadro de lactancia bien arriesgado en la época de la Alemania nazi, mira en esta entrada de mi blog. Se trata del cuadro de Ernst Neuschul. “Negermutter” (Madre negra). 1931.Museo de Leicester.

    Su obra, con amor por las minorías y contra el racismo, no fue del agrado de Goebbels. Queda poco. Este se salvó porque lo compraron unos judíos alemanes que se exiliaron en el Reino Unido con parte de las obras.

    Mi entrada:


    Buen viaje por España


  2. rebeccambs says:

    Gracias por compartir, Ramón. Me están fascinando las representaciones numerosas que he encontrado durante estos últimos días mientras hacía “pequeñas” investigaciones de las obras del Prado. Me interesa mucho el retrato que sale en tu blog. También, las múltiples versiones de la historia de Cimon y Pero me interesan mucho, y quiero seguir explorando este “mito”!
    Agradezco tu comentario! 🙂

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