Regular Faculty

The Lactation Miracle of St. Bernard

© Fr. Michael Morris, OP

The Lactation Miracle of St. Bernard - Stained Glass Window from the Abbey at GethsemaniStained glass window currently on display in Blackfriars Gallery as part of our current exhibit: Visual Meditations from Thomas Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani.

Based on one of the later legends of the great Cistercian Abbot Saint Bernard, he was reportedly praying one day in 1146 before a statue of the Virgin Mary in Speyer Cathedral. In his prayer he asked the Virgin to "Show that you are a mother..." (Monstra te esse matrem). The statue suddenly came alive and squirted milk on Bernard's lips. In this mystical encounter Bernard becomes a spiritual son of Mary sharing a kinship with Christ who was also nourished by Mary's milk.

From the Middle Ages through the Baroque period, much theological and pictorial attention was made on the subjects of Christ's blood and Mary's milk. By the Blood of Christ one gained redemption. Mary's milk became, on the other hand, a symbol of nourishment and hope on that road to salvation.

Nursing Madonna - Catacomb of Priscilla

The earliest known depiction of Mary comes from the Catacomb of Priscilla, a late-second-century or early-third-century underground burial site in Rome. The wall painting depicts a woman nursing a baby, seated beside a bearded man who stands pointing to the sky. Scholars identify this man as either Isaiah or Balaam, two Hebrew prophets whose writings were interpreted to prefigure Jesus' birth.

La Virgen y las almas del Purgatorio - Pedro Machua, 1517

As seen here to the left, one iconographical motif by Pedro Machua, (1517, Museo del Prado) portrayed the Child Jesus expressing his own mother's milk to help cool of cleansing fires surrounding the Poor Souls in Purgatory. From the 14th century onward, lactation miracle iconography became so popular in hagiographic representation that other religious orders began to appropriate it for their notable saints. Thus, after St. Bernard, it also shows up in the iconography of St. Augustine, Alan de la Roche, Filibert of Chartres, St. Catherine de Ricci, and St. Dominic.

Santo Domingo y la Virgen o Alegoría Dominica - Villalpando, 17th-18th century (Detail)

Like St. Bernard, St. Dominic was an eloquent preacher and his lactation miracle was represented to underscore this fact. In a Baroque representation (left) painted by the Mexican artist Villalpando, Mary is shown expressing her milk onto the lips of the founder of the Order of Preachers who is surrounded by female allegorical figures representing the three Theological Virtues. The original painting hangs in the Church of Santo Domingo in Mexico City; a reproduction is located at DSPT on the wall near the upstairs restrooms of the west building.

My Nursemaid and I - Kahlo, 1937

In the modern era, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was inspired by this symbolic painting of St. Dominic to create a similar image of herself in 1937 called "My Nursemaid and I." Here the artist suckles the breast of her Indian nursemaid. In representing herself this way, Kahlo identified herself in the socio-political guise of a milk sister who would join in the struggle of all Mesoamerican people.