Madonna del Latte (II)
© 1995 Ginger Henry Geyer
glazed porcelain with gold
6 parts, 10 ½” x 7” x 3 ½”
Adaptation from The Barnabas Altarpiece, English, 1250-60
No, I did not make up this title. Madonna del Latte is a bonafide term in art history. Leo Steinberg's influential book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, documents of hundreds of paintings which explicitly expose the bosom of Mary and the genitalia of Jesus, giving new light to the theology of incarnation. Painters displayed that Jesus was a real human who had to eat, who indeed had all his parts, even the life-giving ones. Maria Lactans is the oldest Virgin and Child motif, found in the catacombs in Rome, probably derived from the Egyptian Isis suckling Horus. Madonna del Latte was widely expressed by the 13th century, comparing grace to mother's milk suckled from the breasts of God. Often these medieval images show a bulbous breast, with the Christ Child as an older baby (or small man) grasping and playfully turning toward the viewer. When Jesus told us to "become like little children", was He inviting us to come out and play? To be nourished by wonder, as children are, and as new mothers are when breast-feeding finally works? To take delight in the goodness of things, such as an excellent caffe latte? Or a Caffe de Vita? If life is like caffeine, buzzy and addictive, might we know it more fully with an infusion of grace? I am not one who is able to take my coffee black; I need lots of milk.
When carving the first version of this piece, a friend came over with her new baby. He got fussy, so she calmly seated herself in my grandmother's old rocker and nursed him. Just a simple everyday event for them, but my studio was honored with pure glee. With homage to this, and to several scriptures invoking the themes of nourishment, grace, and authenticity vs. artificiality, a poem appears on the back of the apse:
Madonna del Latte,
Your voice makes a heavy-breasted buzz
I hear few words I see.
Time stands fresh as the milk moustache on my child
Lick away sweet grace! There is life below in the rumble--
God is rooting around!
Like a trusted cupbearer I crawl onto your lap to offer my emptiness.
My depleted demitasse is dirty,
the Kingdom is locked, a sword awaits my soul.
Sweet N' Low, swing low, sweet chariot
Fed Ex the formula for Incarnate Cremora!
She looks in my ear.
"You do not need more Equal, dear.
Stir what you've got."
Feel the pondering place in Mary's heart.
It pumps that ye may milk out and be satisfied with her abundance.
Yet frantically I express myself.
How may I express my faith?
Express my milk for hungry babes as double-creamed espresso?
As barren dry humor?
Can I milk the system while breathing this halo of steam?
It dampens my bare skin, trickles between rounded couplets
of lullaby and burden
and settles over the gulping eyes of a satisfied baby.
You who receive so well give back
Slow grace upon grace.
A coming to fullness---O taste and see!
My cup overflows with the real thing,
inconvenient and immeasurable,
solid food that is liquid love.
Again, again, the firm warmed cry of your nourishment
makes me glad to be a mammal.