Joos van der Beke, Virgin with Saviour, c.1510_ISANG Collection

- Depictions of the Virgin Mary are often used by art historians as a gauge of changing societal attitudes towards ordinary women over time. During the Northern Renaissance, images projected ideals of feminine behaviour which was often unrealistic. During the Medieval period, ordinary women were depicted as inherently evil, stained with the legacy of Eve's sin and unable to achieve the glory of the Virgin Mary. During the Byzantine period, icons of Mary focused on her virginity and holiness in preference to her motherhood. Over time, as women's social mobility improved through the ability to inherit land or take professions, Mary's virtue was seen as more attainable for women. Mary was gradually depicted as more human and her relationship with Christ became more affectionate.
The Virgin's image in Flemish painting of the 15th to early 16th century increasingly emphasised her role in raising and nourishing Christ, and by extension, nurturing his followers. A portrait of good motherhood, this small devotional panel portrays the Virgin Mary breastfeeding her child, positioned behind a green table on which an apple, other fruits and a wineglass rests, all allusions to the Eucharist, Christ’s future and the Church. The Virgin, enveloping her child in white cloth, is gently urging him to suckle her right breast, which is placed unnaturally high. His lips close to the nipple, the child turns to look directly at the viewer with a rather audacious gaze, a device employed to invite the viewer to participate in the scene. The theme of Mary breastfeeding the Child is known as Madonna or Virgo Lactans. In a religious context, Madonna Lactans is interpreted as representing the doctrine of incarnation. The bare breast signifies the humanity and humility of the Virgin Mary.  The painting remains intriguingly relevant in the contemporary debate surrounding breast-feeding in public spaces where women often face judgement and outrage.