The most widespread image on medieval icons was Christ in the arms of his mother. This variation, though, in which the Virgin nurses her son, is something of a rarity. It appears from an early date in the eastern Mediterranean, but was most popular in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy. The image is more than mere domestic realism. It emphasizes the Virgin’s character as the Theotokos (Bearer of God), a title accorded in ancient times to the Egyptian deity Isis. After the triumph of Christianity, it came to be applied to the Virgin Mary, and was enshrined in church doctrine at the Council of Ephesos in 431. The image of the nursing Virgin even suggested that she shared in Christ’s work of redemption. According to the ancient physician Soranos of Ephesos (96-138), a woman’s menstrual blood not only nourished the child in her womb, it also flowed to her breasts where it was transformed into milk. The implication for the Virgin Galaktotrophousa (Nursing Virgin; in Latin, Madonna Lactans) was that her milk shared the same source as the salvific blood of Christ.
The style of this icon resembles that of late- and post Byzantine icons painted in the island of Crete, which was a Venetian possession from 1210-1669. The decoration of the Virgin’s halo, with its punched vine-scroll motif, is very familiar among these icons. The island of Crete enjoyed a prosperous icon industry. Many painters had individual reputations abroad and their products were sold to markets both on Byzantine soil and in Western Europe. The result was a mingling of Byzantine and Western traditions, both in style and in subject matter.
M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 1, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting (Washington, D.C., 1962), 108-109, no. 129, pl. 64.
Springfield, MO, Harwood Gallery, Drury College, Nov. 12 - Dec. 19, 1975.
Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks, "The Collector's Microbe: Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Collections," Apr. 9 - Nov. 9, 2008.
Collection of Boris M. Kiro, Paris.
Collection of Boris Ermoloff, Paris.
Purchased from Boris Ermoloff, Paris, by Mr. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1953.
Gift of Mr. Robert Woods Bliss to Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., 1958.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.