The Virgin’s Peculiar Breast: Negotiating Nudity in Devotional Paintings
According to hermeneutics scholar Margaret Miles, during Tuscany’s early Renaissance nudity in devotional art produced a tension between sexual (erotic) attraction and religious meaning. Specifically, glimpses of the Holy Mother’s exposed breast as she nursed the Christ child could encourage the ‘wrong’ kind of looking; this disrupted the sacred status of her image and destabilized religious meaning. To manage potential erotic readings while attempting to foster ‘proper’ (devotional) gazes, painters made specific artistic choices when representing the Virgin’s bare breast. Obliging artists turned to the art of an earlier era – art that emphasized the symbolic rather than the naturalistic. This paper argues that employing a pictorial program and style that consciously represented the breast as denaturalized and disembodied transformed it to a symbol which relieved the tension between religious meaning and voyeuristic looking while still communicating religious message(s).
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