the pz gesture of the lactating goddess Table of contents

Abstract & Preface

poetry by
Adrienne Rich

Chapter I
The hand of "El caballero de la mano al pecho"

Chapter II
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures

Chapter III
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures

Chapter IV
Breast-feeding forms in the Renaissance

Chapter V
Literary sources of lactating goddesses

Chapter VI
The meaning of the Ostentatio Mammarum
and the pseudo- zygodactylous gesture

Illustrations & Bibliography

Biographical sketch


Chapter VI:
The meaning of the Ostentatio Mammarum and the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture

The lactation motif

Personal types
From Christianity's early beginnings up to the beginning of the Renaissance (ca. 1350), as demonstrated by the artwork and literature above, the lactation motif centered around dyadic ('personal' or 'private') images of the Virgin nursing the infant Jesus alone (exept in the case of St. Luke, the portraitist) in various situations: Mary's giving birth to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus' flight to Egypt, Mary sitting on the ground (the Virgin of Humility), Mary enthroned, Mary posing for St. Luke, and Mary standing. Although there is no conclusive evidence that the Christian 'Virgin nursing the infant Jesus' motif was borrowed from the Egyptian 'Isis nursing the infant Horus' motif, a fundamental iconological difference exists between the ways each goddess holds her hand in nursing the infant. Isis always holds her breast with a cupped hand, whereas the Virgin Mary uses both the cupped hand to hold her breast and the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture to offer her nipple to the infant Jesus. This dyadic encounter between sacred Mother and sacred infant, between Mary and Jesus, offers a very broad range of interpretation: maternity and the maternal-child bond,220 matrisexuality and a child's intimacy with its mother,221 the Madonna's "homey simplicity and unpretentious accessibility,"222 sympathy and humility,223 an anticipatory basis for Mary's "authority to intercede for mankind,"224 erotic and sensual delight,225 orality,226 an "explicit objectification of ... personal and collective anxiety [over] ... the uncertainty of food supply,"227 and explicit proof of Jesus Christ's human incarnation.228 Prior to Christianity, artists created dyadic lactation scenes involving goddesses nursing older boys and young men, with direct mouth to breast contact: in the Near East (Karatepe), in Egypt (Isis and pharaohs) and in Etruria (Hera nursing Herakles, with company). Only in the latter example (the Etruscan mirror, above) does a goddess use the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture. In Christianity this scene never appears with direct breast-mouth contact. In its stead the Virgin Mary presses her breast and causes milk to jet out in an arc or to fall upon her believers' mouths (e.g., Saint Bernard). The one exception to this case is the Virgin nursing a unicorn.229 In situations where the Virgin Mary offers milk to a saint, the p/z gesture is used almost exclusively. This is the first degree of extension away from the personal/private display of Mary nursing: the introduction of another person, a Christian saint, as receptor of the divine milk. Given the presence of the child Jesus in these nursing scenes, the setting becomes a triangle of holy figures: Mother, Child and Saint.

Impersonal types
The Renaissance of the 15th century developed the lactation theme by introducing the motif of Mary, the Mother of God, explicitly showing her breast (ostentatio mammarum) to a group of other beings: God the Father and to the resurrected Jesus in Heaven as a request for the salvation of mortals, who are present, on the latter's behalf.230 The two scenes in which this occurs are the "Intercessio Christi et Maria," and the "Mother and the Man (Son) of Sorrows." The meaning here is obvious: Mary shows her breast to Jesus Christ and to God the Father as proof that she was the mother of Jesus and that, through the strength of this relationship, she has the power to request favors and God, in turn, has the obligation to honor her request.231 (This motif draws from the ancient story of the Iliad in which Hekuba, the mother, implores her son, Hektor, not to go into battle. See above.) In this case the favor is always the immortal salvation of mortal human beings.232 In nearly every occurrence of Mary's ostentatio mammarum, she uses the p/z gesture on her breast. Towards the latter end of the Renaissance (1603), Cesare Ripa adapted the maternal lactation motif to his anthropomorphized images of abstract qualities,233 and artists began depicting scenes from Greek and Roman myths, including the theme of the "Creation of the Milky Way" with Hera/Juno and Herakles. Overall, the Medieval and Renaissance periods involve the rapid evolution of the lactation theme from early Christian Mother-Holy Child dyad to the incorporation of mortals in the scene. In the majority of these scenes the artists depict the goddess using the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture.

The meaning of the hand gesture

Immortal female
In all of the paintings and scenes described above, there is one common element: the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture. Hitherto its meaning has been lost or unknown, even by the artists who used it.234 It is used in every type and motif in which the Virgin Mary places her hand to her breast or when her breast is bared in request for mortal salvation. But in only one instance, and that in modern literature, is the gesture as such noted as being a symbolic maternal gesture: "the nursing gesture here becomes a sign of the sustenance and salvation of mankind."235 This same gesture is also described for use in modern literature and depictions of breastfeeding.236 From both the artistic and medical evidence it is clear that the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, when used by women, is indeed a gesture of giving salvation, derived from gestures women actually use/used while nursing.

Fig. 12. Modern nursing mother237

But the context needs to be further delineated: in the case of Isis nursing the pharaohs and other mortals, her gift, through her milk, was immortality; in the case of Hera nursing Herakles, her gift was also immortality to the mortal-born Herakles; but in the case of Mary nursing Jesus--Mary who was mortal at the time, and Jesus who was already immortal --no such correspondence exists. It was only after her transubstantiation and assumption into heaven that she became immortal. She becomes a salvific being only after her assumption--upon becoming immortal and living in heaven. Her ability to save mortals from eternal hell is also incumbent upon the strength of her relationship to her son, Jesus, and upon his relationship to his father, God.238 In the first two of these instances, it is the goddesses' physical milk that conveys immortality to mortals, whereas with the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is her maternal relationship--as demonstrated by her nursing Jesus, her bared breast, and her use of the breast-feeding gesture--that is salvific. Thus the gesture evolves among the forementioned goddesses from a simple gesture of holding the breast (in order to transfer milk from immortal breast to mortal mouth) to a sign of maternal relationship with the gods who grant immortality. The pseudo-zygodactylous gesture also becomes an abstract symbol of this latter maternal relationship as the gesture is moved away from the breast. In all earlier Christian depictions of the Virgin Mary in which the gesture appears, her breast is bared for nursing the child Jesus. In the late Medieval period and early Renaissance, Mary is seen to have removed her gestured hand from her breast, leaving her breast uncovered, as in the motifs of the "Intercessio Christi et Maria," and the "Mother and the Man (Son) of Sorrows," and Madonna Mediatrix.239 In later portraits, her breast is covered, but her hand remains in the maternal breast-feeding gesture. Later still, her breast is covered and her hand is placed across the chest of child Jesus, framing his nipple in exactly the same manner as she had in earlier works with the pseudo-zygodactylous/breast-feeding gesture framed her own. (See figure 13.) This change of gesture location is an evolution of the gesture within the context of the main character herself: from Mary's bared breast, to her uncovered breast and away from her body, to covered breast and away from her body, to the gesture's placement on Jesus' own breast. Still, the gesture remains within the sacred repertoire of the immortal goddess.

Figure 13. William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), "Virgin and angels" 1900. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

Not only is the p/z gesture an emblem, symbol of the maternal element of exchange in the economy of salvation; it is also a fundamental motif of religious art. In it are united two basic aspects of ancient and modern European culture: art and religion. The p/z gesture signals the archetypal mediation between human and divine, female and male, life and death. Here the gesture's meaning can be traced backward as such: pseudo-zygodactylous gesture > breast-feeding gesture > breast-feeding > (transfer of breast milk from goddess to mortal male) > immortality > maternal salvation. This is the most naturalistic interpretation of the gesture, but it is not the gesture's only meaning.240

Immortal male
In Christian iconography another type of evolution of the gesture occurs: the migration of the gesture from the Virgin Mary to other beings, immortal and mortal. When Jesus uses the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, he becomes a mother figure (Julian of Norwich, "Jesus is our true Mother," "our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side"), complete with the ability to nurse and the feeling of maternal concern and responsibility for his mortal children. Literature from the 12th through 15th centuries supports the concept of 'Jesus as mother,'241 thus translating the concept of nursing to the preeminent Christian authority figure, Jesus himself. Initially, after Mary's placement of her nursing gesture on Jesus' breast, Jesus adopts the hand sign for himself to show the wound in his side and his breasts. Later, as seen in Titian's and El Greco's own paintings, Jesus uses the hand symbol displayed on his covered chest and to hold his cross. Lastly, to complete this phase of the migration, the gesture is taken up by mortal beings who have become immortal. In Christian iconography this refers to saints, both male and female. The meaning of the pseudo-zygodactylous hand gesture becomes more abstract as it is removed from its source, the mother goddess. Jesus uses the gesture for his own display purposes, showing his wounds (ostentatio vulnerum) as both proof of his humanity and his obedience to his father to suffer a mortal death. In this situation it is probable that artists adapted the hand sign from Mary as Jesus' own gesture of salvation. Still, as the gesture moves to human beings who gained immortality through correct living and correct worship, it is arguable that the gesture they were given was not borrowed from Jesus but from the original source, Mary. Mary was known, and still is among Catholic believers, as having special favor with Jesus and God, and also as being the 'easier' path by which to gain heavenly salvation. The gesture more often appears in the later Renaissance with Mary and with her special followers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Ildefonso. When the sainted mortals have adopted the gesture and followed the proper path to immortal salvation, they themselves then become pathways, through Mary, for other mortals to eternal life.242

Mortal male
No one knows who the subject is of El Greco's painting, "El caballero de la mano al pecho." The most that we can say is, if indeed it is a portrait of a Spanish man, that he was a mortal since he bears no resemblance nor ascription to any Christian saint. His use of the symbolic hand gesture completes the migration of the gesture from immortal female breast-feeding to the mortal male with no symbolic or relational context.243 With "El caballero" the gestures also reaches its most abstract form, its contact with the original form lost. The gesture must be understood in its different contexts and different persons. When Mary uses the p/z gesture to nurse Jesus, for example, the hand's meaning is distinct from that of Jesus embracing the cross with his hands posed in the stylized manner. It is also possible that the hand gesture contains multiple meanings, at different levels, none being the exclusive or "right" one. The multiplicity of symbolic meanings ascribed to Mary's bared breast by two of its most scholarly writers, Leo Steinberg (The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and modern oblivion) and Margaret R. Miles ('The Virgin with one bare breast').244 Mary's bared breasts and nursing are understandably interpreted by Steinberg in relation to proving the incarnate physicalness of the main character, the Christ child, since Christ is the main character of his study. Margaret Miles demonstrates a completely distinct opinion of the meaning of Mary's breast as a symbol of nourishment, plenitude and care when examining Mary as the central figure in an enormously popular cult of her own during a time of famine, hunger and death. Mary, the Mother of God, however, is a major figure in Christianity by herself (sometimes referred to as the fourth member of the Holy Trinity) and should be understood as a participant with a special symbolic meaning within the scenes, just as any other saint. Her breasts, her milk, her motherhood are specific attributes as significant to the understanding of Christian theology as Christ's nudity. Mary's breast is not just an indifferent theatrical prop, a nameless udder from which Jesus shows that he, too, drinks milk, nor does its meaning derive solely from Jesus' nursing from it, but the gesture symbol draws strength and meaning from viewers' knowledge that Mary is Jesus' mother, and it carries the connotations of the mother-son relationship, the maternal bond, and all the psycho-social history that the mother-child bond carries with it.


In dealing with metaphors and the decipherment of symbolic language, the Spanish poet Carlos Bousoño uses the equation "A (el símbolo) [=B=C=] la emoción de C" in order to understand the symbolic metaphors of Spanish poets such as García Lorca and Ramón Jiménez.245 Bousoño's rule of symbol transitivity suggests that any symbol--literary or graphic--can be translated through a series of mental links into the expression of an emotion. Keeping in mind the historical, religious, and inter-cultural milieus through which the p/z gesture has traveled, the basic transitional steps, are: the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture (the symbol) [= the position of a mother's hand on her breast while nursing her child = a mother's warmth, love, and care = a mother's role of protection, especially in relation to paternal authority = intercession on the part of the child = the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, on behalf of humankind (sinners) in front of God=] the emotion of spiritual salvation, the goal of all Christians. Both historically and symbolically the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture links Mankind to God via Woman, the female element of intercession in conflict. Throughout this examination it should be noted that not one depiction of any character using the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture is known to have been created by a woman. It thus appears that every example of the p/z gesture was created by a man. Knowing this, it is appropriate to ask Cui bono? --- Who benefits from this gesture and its accompanying salvific qualities? A meaning may be read into this: that male control (as artists and writers) of the female (i.e., the Virgin, Hera, Isis) insures continued access for males to immortality, which is located in the realm of the divine female. The salvific power of the divine mother is not abnegated or denied, but translated and appropriated by men. How conscious were painters and sculptors of the meaning of the gesture? Given the total lack of information handed down from them, both orally and in literature, it is safe to assume that their use of the gesture was traditional at best, unconscious at worst. Nonetheless, the gesture exists principally in the religious realm, connected through history to the mother goddess. Through the combined history of the salvific theology of breast milk and its gesture, the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture plays its role as a requesting sign for human salvation.

Eugene Grasset, postcard, Sarah Bernhardt as Jeanne d'Arc, ca. 1890

fig. 14. "Jeanne d'Arc," portrayed by French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), by Eugene Grasset, ca. 1890. postcard [246]