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A paper tracing the Virgo Lactans imagery to those of the Isis Lactans

A paper tracing the Virgo Lactans imagery to those of the Isis Lactans

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  • 1. 1 One of the various forms of the fertility goddess, prevalent throughout history, is that of the universal mother. She is represented in various forms, one form is the goddess shown with a child in her arms suckling at the divine breast.1 All images in which the child plays an integral role belong to that of the mother goddess.2 This image of the divine mother is commonly known as the Theotokos or “god bearer” and also as the Galaktotrophousa or “she who nourishes with milk” in the eastern Christian tradition.3 The Theotokos makes its first appearance in Alexandrine Egypt.4 The Egyptian goddess Isis is the most widely known personification of the Theotokos type whose influence leads to the adoption of the title and imagery by Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Christian tradition. According to Egyptian mythos, Isis was the sister and consort of the god Osiris. After his murder by their brother Seth, Isis wandered the earth searching for her husband. She found him, reassembled his body and breathed life back into him. After Osiris’ resurrection, Isis conceived and gave birth to the god Horus. Isis hid him from Seth and protected him until he matured and took over the throne for his father. Thus Isis came to be venerated as a protector of children. She was revered as a virgin, the ideal mother and wife and a deity of children and fertility.5 Isis was regarded as a link between Egyptian royalty and the gods. Her name means “throne” and she is often depicted seated on a throne with the child Horus on her 1 M.A. Murray, “Female Fertility Figures,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 64 (January-June 1934) http://www.jstor.org (accessed 04-12-2008): 1. 2 Ibid. 3 Maria Vassilaki, ed., Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Norfolk, England: Ashgate Publishing, 1988), 4-13 4 Ibid., 4. 5 Scott C. Littleton, Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling (San Diego, California: Thunder Bay Press, 2002), 42-43.
  • 2. 2 lap as if she herself is the throne for the divine Pharaoh (Figures 1 & 2).6 A statuette of Isis and a headless Horus dating from the early Ptolemaic period shows the seated goddess crowned with the throne hieroglyph (Figures 1). Her breasts are full, emphasizing the fertility aspects of this statue. From the time of the Middle Kingdom the two aspects of Isis as the mother and the preserver of the Pharaohs became intertwined.7 The most widespread depictions of the Egyptian goddess are as the Isis Lactans where she is represented as seated, nursing the child Horus. This type of image was found outside Egypt from the eighth century B.C.E. but it reached the height of its popularity in the early centuries of the Common Era. Her image is found in everything from figurines and amulets to coins, lamps and funerary monuments.8 A necklace spacer made of Egyptian faience shows the goddess and her child seated in a papyrus thicket, referring to Horus’ childhood in the Delta (Figure 3). It is Isis’ popularity as the pre-eminent mother goddess throughout the ancient Mediterranean world that makes her imagery the ideal influence for the development of the iconography of Christianity’s Virgin Mary. The connection between the enthroned Isis and Mary enthroned is strong and furthers the link between their respective iconography. The most enduringly popular figure of the ancient world is that of the goddess Isis. During Graeco-Roman times, Isis was the most revered female deity and her influence extended as far as Roman Britain.9 In the third century B.C.E., Ptolemy I made the cult of Isis and Osiris the official religion of Egypt. The extent of the influence of 6 Vassilaki, 9. 7 Gail Peterson Corrington, “ The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity,” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (October 1989). http://www.jstor.org (accessed 04-18-2008): 398. 8 Ibid. 9 Littleton, 43.
  • 3. 3 their cult outside of pre-Christian Egypt is well known due to the quantity of references within ancient texts from writers such as Diodorus of Sicily in his History and the personal letters of Tibullus dating to approximately 30 B.C.E.10 In order to analyze the origins of Marian icons one must look to the images of the Isis Lactans particularly prevalent during the Ptolemaic period of a heavily Hellenized Egypt.11 While images of the Galaktotrophousa have been a minor but persistent subject in Christian iconography, it is clear that early Christians found reason to appropriate the imagery of Isis.12 The Judeo-Christian traditions found in Western culture are rooted in the worldview of the ancient near east from which the Old Testament as developed.13 The image of the nursing mother and child has been adapted throughout history to serve various cultures while maintaining its significance as an image of divine motherhood. She was worshipped under various names and survives into modern times as the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Christ.14 The universal mother was a central figure in most religions of the ancient world and Mary’s iconography appears to stem from the Christian church’s need for a mother figure. It could be said that Mary’s evolution as the mother goddess stems from the Church’s need to create a familiar element to encourage the conversion of pagan peoples. The most recent incarnation of the Galaktotrophousa (Figure 4) can be seen in the iconography of the Virgin Mary. Known as the Virgo Lactans, images of Mary nursing the infant Jesus were rare but in existence in the early 10 Shirley Jackson Case, “Christianity and the Mystery Religions,” The Biblical World 43, no. 1 (January 1914). http://www.jstor.org (accessed 04-07-2008):13. 11 Vassilaki, 4. 12 Ibid. 13 Hildreth York and Betty L. Schlossman, “She Shall be Called Woman: Ancient Near Eastern Sources of Imagery,” Woman’s Art Journal 2, no. 2 (Autumn 1981-Winter 1982) http://www.jstor.org (accessed 4-18-2008): 37. 14 Ibid.
  • 4. 4 part of the Common Era and achieved their greatest popularity during the time of the Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.15 It is the image of the child king that comes to dominate the early Christian iconography of Mary.16 The earliest significant depictions of this form come from Late Antique Egypt in the Coptic Christian tradition.17 In one Coptic relief, Mary is shown cradling the infant Jesus while presenting her breast to the child (Figure 5). She is framed by a cross on either side and sits between two columns topped with papyrus capitals. The Galaktotrophousa also appears in a fresco on the wall of a tomb in the Priscilla Catacombs in Rome (Figure 6). The fresco dates to the third century C.E. and depicts the Virgin holding the Christ child to her breast under a tree while being attended to by an indiscernible figure. The decline in images of the Virgo Lactans may be attributed to Christian attitudes towards modesty. The image reappears during the Renaissance perhaps most notably in Michelangelo’s Madonna of the Steps (Figure 7). Here Michelangelo depicts the Virgin in shallow relief holding the Christ child to her breast against a backdrop of steps. While the Virgin’s breast is not exposed, she is clearly nursing the child under the drapery of her mantel. Some scholars make the connection between the Galaktotrophousa and that of not only Mary Hodegetria (Figure 8), “she who shows the way”, but also the Glykophilousa (Figure 9) or “loving sweetness”. These connections are highly speculative and postulate that Christian modesty could be one factor responsible for a transformation from the presentation of the breast to the Virgin gesturing towards or embracing the Christ child.18 Unlike the Madonna, the goddess Isis is usually depicted with her breasts bare in 15 Ibid., 39. 16 Corrington, 399. 17 Vassilaki, 13. 18 Ibid., 9.
  • 5. 5 accordance with Egyptian artistic tradition. As an early paradigm for the universal mother, the Egyptian goddess Isis provided the model for the iconography of the Virgin Mary. Isis was worshipped as the divine, virginal mother and the protectress of children. With the advent of Christianity early Christian leaders were able to transfer Isis’ imagery along with her connotations to the Madonna. By depicting the Madonna as the Theotokos, Mary becomes Christianity’s version of the universal mother and provides early converts a familiar element to ease the transition between religions. Through the Virgin Mary’s appropriation of the Lactans imagery she continues the line of great mother goddesses that has evolved throughout history. Like Isis, Mary is often depicted with the divine child king seated on the “throne” of her lap. The iconography of the Madonna has taken Isis’ imagery and translated it into the forms of the Hodegetria and the Glykophilousa. The Galaktotrophousa is the most literal translation of Mary as the mother goddess. Through the adoption of the Theotokos imagery, Mary has become today’s most prevalent incarnation of the mother goddess.

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