I revisited the Musée Cluny in Paris in November, a compact gem on the Left Bank, home to the gorgeous chivalric fantasy of the Dame à la Licorne tapestries. My eye was struck by an early Gothic statue of the Virgin and child – feeding at her breast. I think this must be it:
Credit: this anonymous French blogger
What is going on here? We can rule out a public health campaign: thirteenth-century Parisian babies, like the real infant Jesus, like most babies in the world’s history, got breast milk or died. Prurient sexual interest? Forget it. This was a sculpture, not a painting: an expensive public theological statement made by order of the canons of an important city church.
One serious explanation could be that this is a sign of the proto-humanism of the 12th and 13th-century, along with the launch of Christian universities to compete with Muslim ones. The explanation would fit this gentle sculpture of a century later, emphasising the human mother love of the woman Mary.
Credit: MusÃ©e Cluny shop (you can buy a reproduction)
But I reckon that for the older one it won’t wash. Early Gothic sculpture – the label dated the early one around 1240 CE – is actually less human than Romanesque, with its comedy and satire. It discovered human dignity, within religion, and embodied it in huge, elongated, hieratic kings and prophets. The Virgin in the statue is crowned: she’s the Queen of Heaven, the Theotokos, not an ordinary girl.
What else? the late French historian Georges Duby saw Gothic art as in part a reaction to the Cathar heresy, a civilised counterpart of the bloody Albigensian crusade. The Cathars were dualists; the material world was irredeemabkly corrupt, and salvation came from escaping it. Why this gloomy creed appealed more in sunny Languedoc than rainy Northern France is a mystery; but still, it was widely attractive, both from its mystical escapism and its realistic view of the squalor, violence and disease of daily life.
Combating the heresy required the Catholic Church to rehabilitate matter and ditch the fear of the demonic forces in nature so evident in the Romanesque. St. Francis’ paeans to the sun and birds are part of this current. So are the great windows of the Gothic cathedrals. The architects were constantly pushing the envelope of building technology to make ever bigger openings, taking risks that frequently led to collapses. The purpose was to let in more light: created, immaterial, and good. In the frozen liturgy of the stained glass, the natural light of the sun enabled man to enrich its beauty and offer it back to God. The great cathedrals are anti-Cathar poems in stone and glass. Here is Strasbourg’s rose window:
An image of a breast-feeding Mary fits in perfectly with this argument. It’s an in-your-dualist-face assertion both of the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God made man, and of the inherent goodness of the natural order. The everyday act of breast-feeding is not only reproductively essential, it gives pleasure to both mother and child: perhaps the most innocent pleasure of which humans are capable. You don’t have to buy into the premises of the mediaeval Parisian clerics to agree with their conclusion and admire the result.
I wish there were more such statues in churches.
Dedicated to Alice Louise Patricia Rousselle, my second grand-daughter, born on 7 January 2010, and her mother Sarah. Waaah!
More speculation here on dualism.