More about Saint Bernard and the Virgin


Take Alonso Cano’s word for it: piety does a body good

The Catholic Church, if you'll allow us to court controversy for a moment, has historically advanced a pretty saint-positive agenda. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the tradition of the hagiographies, which were written accounts of saints' lives that played a big role in the development of the early church. You see, poor folk in medieval Europe were limited in their choice of entertainment options by the fact that most of them couldn’t read or write; more often than not that meant they got whatever the local church was willing to provide and literally nothing else.

The Church figured out early on that the lives of the saints worked really well as lessons in how good Catholics should live, and when they started propagating the hagiographies it did indeed help spread Catholic teachings across the continent. Still, your average medieval community was first and foremost desperate for something to distract them from the fact that their life expectancy was roughly double the average shoe size, and the old-timey authors knew they could only get so much mileage out of “And that’s when St. Francis argued his case very eloquently” before people stopped listening and went back to counting how many of their friends had died of diarrhea, so some of the stories wound up...Hollywood-ed up a bit, shall we say, for popular consumption.

The church didn’t object to this, because people were still learning that the saints were awesome and you should be just like them, but the end result was that you got stories of St. Benedict summoning ravens to protect him from poison, St. Martha taming a dragon, and the event depicted here by Alonso Cano, in which St. Bernard got a big ol’ mouthful of breast milk from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Paying attention now, aren't you?

As far as saints go, Bernard of Clairvaux is definitely an A-lister. Officially, the church doesn’t consider any saint to be better or worse than another, but let’s just say that if St. Bernard showed up with three other randomly-chosen saints the odds are good that those three could leave without disappointing any nearby cardinals. In his day, he was considered so wise and holy that kings and Popes asked for his advice, and you’d better believe his hagiography is chock full of crazy miracles. Some of these were the old reliable “helping the poor and the sick” type, like when he reputedly gave the power of speech to a dying mute so he could confess his sins (which is undoubtedly a nice thing to do for a fellow Catholic, but it does strike us as kind of harsh to give a guy the power of speech just so you can instruct him to tell you how much he sucks), but a few of them were a little more...bizarre, as you can see here.

The story goes that Bernard was praying one day before a statue of the nursing Virgin Mary when suddenly she came to life before him and squeezed a stream of milk into his mouth, in recognition of his holiness, or...something? We don’t quite remember the part of the Bible where Mary ran around whipping out her boobs and letting people she liked take a hit, but to be fair it’s a pretty big book; we may have skimmed some parts. Regardless, the story became remarkably popular, and Cano’s painting is just one of a whole slew over the centuries that show the Blessed Mother helping to keep Bernard’s bones strong.

Showing the Virgin Mary breastfeeding was its own bona fide art phenomenon for a long time, to the point that the Latin term Maria Lactans was coined to describe it. Hey, for a good long while there were only so many contexts in which you were allowed to paint nudie pics -- people had to take what they could get.


Comments (1)


'...your average medieval community was first and foremost desperate for something to distract them from the fact that their life expectancy was roughly double the average shoe size...'

Will, this is one of my favorite Sarticles. You rock!