A very brief history of the breast as propaganda

by Yule Heibel on February 8, 2004

Isolating and accentuating body parts has a long history in Western visual representation, but the female breast occupies a special place. (Unless you’re French, of course, in which case you appear to be venerably predisposed to the female rear.) Beer and especially milk drinking Americans love the breast. It signifies both maternal love and eroticism, signalling back and forth between these two expressions of power. It seems prudent, however, to remember that in Western iconography women have not been in control over how breasts were represented or for what purposes. Janet Jackson’s breast-exposure is no exception, as it appeared to have been staged as an assault on her person by a trusted male, which means the traditional power hierarchy is maintained. That is, even if she helped orchestrate the event from the start, it was still represented as one in which male power has control. This puts the accentuated body part (Jackson’s breast) firmly in a tradition of propaganda, and it would be really interesting to read some theories based on that premise.

The most active breast propaganda in recent times has come from the Catholic Church, specifically during the period of Counter Reformation (16th century) when Protestants accused Catholics of idolatry (especially mariolatry), and the Vatican decided to fight back with a weaponised Holy Breast, namely the Virgin Mary’s. However, regardless of how loved or venerated Mary was, the purpose was always to cement the power of [earthly, male] church authority.

In painting after painting, Mary is shown as the life-sustainer of Jesus, via her exposed breast and implied lactation. There were even instances when the lactation was made explicit, as in the print on the left here, St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving the Lactatio. Bernard had worn himself out practically shouting Monstra te esse Matrem (“Show yourself a mother”) at a statue of Mary nursing Jesus, when, lo, the statue came to life and squeezed its breast to squirt a stream of warm milk directly into Bernard’s open mouth.

In the Caravaggio painting, The Seven Acts of Mercy, (above right, or click on link, too) we see an early 17th century conflation of two biblical acts of mercy (feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoners) personified by Cimon’s daughter Pero, also called the Caritas Romana, who in this Christian context also becomes a stand-in for Maria Mediatrix, the Virgin as Mediator. She is very much incarnated here, as only Caravaggio could do it, but it’s still religious propaganda painted for a monastery in Naples. And while Leo Steinberg stood Renaissance art history on its head for a brief moment in the 1980s by describing in detail the sexuality of Christ as seen in countless paintings, this, too, was an iconography in the service of propaganda and power.

So while the iconography of a lactating woman — or even that of a woman with exposed breasts who isn’t actually in the process of lactating — probably does go all the way back to ancient Egyptian images of the nursing Isis, let’s not get carried away and remember instead that just as Janet Jackson had her clothes ripped off by a man, these older displays of breasts were also controlled by men.

Now, having pissed off the religious by mentioning Mary and Janet in one breath, what I’d really like to see is a critical iconography of the latter’s breast and how it figures in media politics in the present age. If big media was able to halt Howard Dean’s train in its tracks and elevate Kerry to front-runner, how could it not have controlled The Breast? The thing was as rigged as an altarpiece commission in the Counter Reformation…


Joel February 9, 2004 at 6:56 pm

A comment and a link to this have been posted to my blog.

Betsy February 10, 2004 at 9:49 am

Well, this has inspired me to get down to my local gallery, the Ufizzi, and find those flagrant lactaters.

Betsy February 10, 2004 at 9:53 am

Ooops, correction “Uffizi”

maria February 10, 2004 at 8:41 pm

I am glad you brought this up — namely the issue of just whose hand was instrumental in exposing the breast. Now, I haven’t seen the Janet thing on TV, only Justin smirking — like a self-satisfied hunter with spear in hand and one foot on the prey — but I have been bothered by the “ripped” business to no end.

Why didn’t Janet simply flip her own costume if all she wanted was to make a statement? And why did she agree to this display of violence against women at an event that is the height of testosterone run amok?

And why, for god’s sake, is the media spending so much time on this issue, when there are those other places from which the “shrouds” need to be ripped off so that the lies can be exposed?

Malfunction seems to be rampant everywhere and we desperately need a few good “repair” people who can see the problems clearly. I hope that you will blog more about this topic, Yule!

Joel February 11, 2004 at 4:21 am

The media is afraid that if it covers the real stories, people might be moved to vote, maria.

Joel February 12, 2004 at 2:40 am

Yule, I have been tossing and turning with this question: that milk that St. Bernard of Clairvaux (nemesis of Peter Abelard) is drinking. Is it pasteurized?

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