With news about Pope Francis asking women to feed their nursing children during baptisms held in the Sistine Chapel and highlighting the goodness of breastfeeding; with a number of blogs and religious article stores appearing around artistic images of Mary; and with prayers (re)appearing around this image the importance of breastfeeding and lactation has been globally highlighted in church and society. Additionally, with the publication of A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 (2008) by Margaret Miles and Suckling at My Mother’s Breasts: The Image of a Nursing God in Jewish Mysticism (2012) by Ellen Davina Haskell, we see a rise in the historical research and use of the breast and breast milk in theological imaginaries.
Recovered, lost, and recreated images surround the stories of lactating and nursing Madonnas eventually made their way to the Americas. This paper will trace these images and their devotions from two geographical locations currently parts of the USA with Spanish Colonial histories to provide this more complicated history. In the first location, I will present Nuestra Señora de Belén (Our Lady of Bethlehem) in Puerto Rico. In the second location, I will examine Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Milk and Happy Delivery) in St. Augustine, Florida.
Nuestra Señora de Belén
The original devotion to Nuestra Señora de Belén, a María de la Leche or lactating/nursing Madonna was first introduced to Puerto Rico through a painting from the Flemish school of Rogier van der Weyden. José Campeche (1751 – 1809), one of the most famous and most revered Puerto Rican artists, painted a number of copies of the image of Nuestra Señora de Belén, which hung in the church of San José in Old San Juan. This original image was thought to come from a Flemish artist. Numerous of these images still exist today. Many of the Campeche paintings are held in private collections but one belongs to the Smithsonian.
The Flemish image was central to devotions of Nuestra Señora de Belén until 1972 when someone stole the image. The chapel remained imageless but still holding the name of Nuestra Señora de Belén. This chapel is currently undergoing restoration and not regularly open to the public. One special song from a Puerto Rican perspective relates to the devotions of this image. The words follow:
Beautiful flowers I bring to Mary
And to her venerated son
And I ask that she extend her hand
Over our Boriquen (Land of the Valiant Lord).
White lilies, from my land,
Picked on a cool morning
I bring to this beloved Virgin
To this Virgin of Bethlehem.
On January 3, 2012, an image of Nuestra Señora de Belén, a copy of the original, was returned to Old San Juan and placed in the Cathedral where she now hangs in a small chapel in the oldest part of the Cathedral. Daily devotions to her seem rare. I spent a period of hours over three days in this small chapel of about three meters by three meters and found most devotions/prayers dedicated to the very large crucifix on the opposite wall with a few glimpses toward Nuestra Señora de Belén. Since her return in 2012, a celebration on or around January 3rd has been held in this Cathedral. Also, an active parish, established in 1960 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, carries her name.
In addition to the Flemish school and Campeche images, the Acosta private collection in Puerto Rico holds two images of María de la Leche/Nuestra Señora de Belén. Both of these images were created in the Viceroyalty of Peru. The larger image is part of an altar piece and is tempera on wood. The other painting, also from the Viceroyalty of Peru is thought to have hung over María de Jesús de Acosta y García’s crib. Both paintings date between the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century.
Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto at Misión Nombre de Dios, Saint Augustine, Florida, USA
The history of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto in St. Augustine, Florida has been traced back to a story from Madrid, Spain. The story goes something as follows:
In the year 1615, a drunk and rather crazy soldier carried through Arenal street an image of Our Lady made of old wood which he was hauling with a rope. He had brought it from other areas of Europe where many Protestants lived and more than likely from where he came. He had brought it to Spain with the charge to give it to a man of the court. But, when the soldier arrived, the man was not in Madrid.
The soldier did not have any devotion to the image and was dragging it with a rope. He had the image solely for financial gain and was only thinking about his compensation.
Seeing how he was handling the image with such disrespect, a woman gave him an ounce of gold to buy it and took it home where she venerated it with much devotion.
On her deathbed, she ordered that this image be given to the Monastery of St. Martin where she was venerated as the Virgin of Milk and Happy Delivery and Pregnant Women.
This famous image was one of the ones that the queens of Spain venerated when they found themselves in a state of pregnancy.
This story should be understood as a narrative account rather than an historical account because the date of 1615 seems later than the original date of the arrival of the image in Saint Augustine, Florida around 1606 when the image is thought to have reached Mission Nombre de Dios.
A copy of this little statue of a nursing Mary was believed to have been brought over with the mariners in one of the ships that docked in St. Augustine. A small area of land on Mission Nombre de Dios, now known as America’s most Sacred Acre, was the home to this devotion by those Spaniards as well as the indigenous who were converted to Christianity and lived on and off of the mission.
This original statue is believed to be in Cuba, where it was sent due to impending British invasion, since St. Augustine was part of the Cuban Archdiocese at the time. Although multiple searches have been made for this statue, it has never been found. Except for about eighty years when the British colonized this land, the devotion to Nuestra Señora de la Leche has remained at Mission Nombre de Dios.
The current chapel was built in the late nineteenth century with some of the stone from the original indigenous chapel. The devotion continued. A new statue of about 12 inches was placed in the chapel in the 1930s. Nuestra Señora de la Leche was used as the image for “Prayers in the Time of War,” a prayer book for soldiers of World War II. Part of the “Prayer for Our Lady of La Leche in the Time of War” states,
Today as the dark clouds of war envelop us and tragedy strikes in our midst, we come to thee. Mothers, fathers, children – all kneel before thee. O Lady of La Leche, there is no pain, no loss, no sorrow, which your Mother’s Heart does not understand, no child of Jesus whom you will not aid. Look upon us today, O Mother, and offer to thy Holy Child our earnest petitions for the peace of the world, for the protection of our loved ones, for the blessing of our families.
Today, the little chapel at Mission Nombre de Dios dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto is filled with devotions and prayers. The bishop thought the image needed to be larger than the one from the 1930s, so in the 1970s she was replaced with the current image which stands about 24 inches tall. The chapel fills with curious tourists, Catholic school children being indoctrinated into the devotion, as well as with parents, particularly mothers, giving thanks for their children, mostly infants. The tiny chapel in Florida holds quite a bit of warmth as four large candleholders each with a lit candle with additional lit candles on the floor under the holders glow silently, yet powerfully. Many of the candles had people’s petitions written in marker on the actual candle. Some candles were left plain, lit, and accompanied with prayer. One account even told the story of how a woman and her daughter prayed at the chapel almost daily for fifteen years for her daughter to conceive a child. Unfortunately, their prayers were never answered, and this miracle never granted.
At least once a day during my time in the chapel, I heard the word “miracle” with a positive outcome. Some were coming to give thanks or just announce a miracle granted because of their prayers to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto. The miracles described ranged from the larger expectations of saved lives or thought-to-be impossibly conceived and born children to smaller marks such as the lives of each of the school children.
The current bishop, Felipe de Jesús Estévez, has declared Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto the Patron Saint of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida. Although he was mostly raised in the USA, he brought his devotion to this Mary from Cuba, his birth country. Because of this move and the desire to spread the devotion: candles, statues, rosaries, pins, prayer cards, note cards, novenas, and more may be found dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto in the gift shop of the mission. Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto was the image used for the Year of Faith (October 11, 2012 to November 24, 2013) prayer cards in this diocese. At Mission Nombre de Dios, the breast of Nuestra Señora de la Leche has been covered more and more in the three iterations created for the chapel in the twentieth century.
So, now that I have presented parts of the complicated history of this image as found in Viejo San Juan and St. Augustine, I turn to themes of how the breast as a sacred symbol has been used as both life-giving and for manipulation or social sins.
Themes of the Images
The breast as a sacred symbol finds itself in a non-innocent history regarding class, war, capitalism, colonization, as well as Catholic/Protestant biases and non-tolerance. First, Spanish dominance of Catholicism over any other religious expression including Protestants made this image one of special devotion. The fact that the story from Madrid depicts the man mistreating the little wooden statue as someone hired in Spain from another land, which is filled with Protestants shows both the belief in the superiority of Catholicism in Spain for religious devotion and sacred symbols but not for military aid or construction projects.
Second, the images seem to belong mostly to upper and elite class members. The Puerto Rican images were art by artists considered historically significant and the images in the private Acosta collection were painted for home altars for members of the aristocracy. The image was used at times for those on ships traveling to the Americas to guide their journeys. These journeys, as we all know all too well, were mostly to pillage resources, convert indigenous peoples to Christianity, and to bring African endured servants and slaves to work the land mining for high price commodities.
Third, not-always-positive mixes of indigenous and Spanish ways of life were found around these images, particularly in the songs, prayers, and the cultural perspectives encountering one another. For example, the case of Doña María, a cacica or female Timucua chief stands out because she was an indigenous female ruler of about 3000 Timucua in six different settlements in the early seventeenth century. Doña María married a Spanish soldier and lived on Mission Nombre de Dios, which was also her ruling base. Many Timucua became Christians and had a devotion to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto but most also retained parts of their traditional religion. (Geiger 2003, 23) Doña María is credited with saving those living on Mission Nombre de Dios, and the surrounding community, with sparing these people of dying from hunger by feeding them corn. Spaniards not only preferred wheat, but thought corn to be food of savages or not fit for reasonable people. The account claims that Doña María was allowed to share her corn because she was of the elite class and it was a time of necessity. So, the milk Mary shares with Jesus and with humanity was considered neutral and without socioeconomic class or particular religious influence both on the part of the Spanish and Doña María, but corn, also shared by a woman, needed special commendations or justifications attached, so it may be considered food permissible to be eaten by the Spaniards.
Fourth, and closely related to the previous two, these images seem to stand for more than a relationship of mother and child when considered in sacred spaces and devotions. They affirm women’s bodies as bearers of divinity. Yet, all of the images I have seen from both St. Augustine and San Juan have very pale skin and strawberry blonde hair. They resemble what we consider more European features which raises the question as to how the devotion by the Timucua in their time and various devotees today may be engaged in a complex mix of seeing an image that is very natural, a mother nursing her child, and an image that carries imbedded racial and class significations.
Today, the power of devotion to these nursing madonnas seems to attract people in many different ways. The ongoing struggle for life surrounds these images. For most of the images, an image of Nuestra Señora de Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) is also found nearby. The tension between the suffering of humans, particularly women and the struggle to birth and nurture life is a theological theme that can be found with these images. Story after story from devotional candles, prayers, placement of the two Marian statues in near proximity to one another continue to show this theme. Also, the appearance of the stars and sun in relationship to the image stands as a recurring theme. As does the theme of the Holy Spirit either surrounding Mary through the color of her dress or acting through Mary in the power of her “Yes” or as the Spouse of Mary, as found in a traditional medieval Trinitarian formulary. Clearly, both these images and devotions to these images still appear in a variety of public spaces, which shows the pervasive role of these images and devotions among people across geographical places.