“Virgo lactans” (suckling Virgin) is the last example of a holy breast-feeding representation in the Western world. Adopted by famous sculptors and painters including Andrea Pisano (Madonna del latte, 1345) and Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna Litta, 1490–1491), this iconographic model is commonly thought as deriving from Isis, the Egyptian Goddess whose representations as “Isis lactans” have been found in the whole Mediterranean area during the Hellenistic and the Roman period.
However, breast-feeding images connected with different ancient religious cults also exist. In Megara Hyblea, near Syracuse (Sicily), a beautiful limestone sculpture of a Kourotrophos, a Dea Nutrix suckling two infants, was found (VI century BC). An impressive collection of Maters related with the italic cult of Mater Matuta, some of which suckling, was discovered near Capua, Campania (VI-II century BC). Punic pantheon included the relevant Goddess Tanit, whose image as Dea Nutrix/Caelestis was found in the sanctuary dedicated to Baal Hammon in Thinissut, Tunisia (I century BC). Finally, statuettes of a Dea Nutrix feeding a baby at each breast were common in the Roman Gaul (I-II century AC).
These images appear as the evolution of the more ancient figurines representing goddesses suckling an infant, with the hands on the breast or with a prominent breast found in Greece, Sardinia and Near East (Sesklo, 4th millennium; Cabras, 4th millennium; Canaan, 2nd millennium). Breast-feeding as a primary human need appeared soon and remained for long in the religious iconographic tradition of the Mediterranean people, even if with symbolic meanings of growing complexity.
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