The Fine Art of Parenting: breastfeeding and Leonardo

uncategorised / Sunday, January 8th, 2012

The week before Christmas an old friend of mine got me and Thathusband in to the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery. A rare proper grown-up night out, with drinks and canapés and time to read the descriptions by the paintings, for once, ha ha, to see the writing on the wall.

And, obviously, they aren’t half bad. Some of them are famous enough to make you feel like some weird kind of faker in their presence; others are immense and seem to glow in the dark almost, to strange you out in their familiarity, otherness, modernity and agedness.

There are lots of sketches and there’s something in their peculiar fragility and what they reveal about the obsessive attempt to capture first reality and then perfection. The emphasis on dimension and symmetry, the again and again and again-ness of the hunt for the look of a hand, an ear, an ermine, a back, a muscular calf, a child’s face – all scrawled in red or blue or black. The search for authenticity is fascinating.

There are some wonderful pieces, perhaps the big guns being the two versions of The Virgin Of The Rocks. But relieved as I was to get to gen up and take my time I found myself pulled, as ever, to seeing the exhibition through the filter of my new self and the tiny world I now inhabit since having children, and probably since I last had a leisurely walk through a gallery with my husband and without a changing bag.

For a thousand reasons, I’m still breastfeeding newborn. Mainly, I guess, because whenever I try to stop he can sense my ambivalence and either cluster-feeds like a newborn to bank his supply, or goes nuts at night bringing my paper-thin grasp on my mind and my happiness shuddering to a sleepless halt.

Maybe that is why I was drawn to a series of sketches and a painting: The Madonna Litta and in particular the idea of authenticity and what that means. Now, I’m told by better art critics than I that, though long attributed, many think this wasn’t painted by Leonardo but by one of his followers (or at least finished off).

I’ve posted the picture but struggled to find an official one to publish, so will take it down if I get told off. For now, look up. I don’t know who dunnit. But I do know this: the painter nailed breastfeeding.

I’m not surprised; I’m sure it was a more common sight in da Vinci’s time. But also I saw the sketches. Sketches trying again and again to get around the fat and thin and luminously fuzzy and sharply defined nature of babies and toddlers; attempts to capture their cheeks working, their faces in profile; turning, turning, degree by degree away from the world and then back to it. The hunt, by whichever artist, for the right angle to show the breastfeeding Christ as a suckling babe.

Wikipedia refers to the awkward pose of the child (and other details like the outline), suggesting this is not the real deal. And it may not be a da Vinci but the kid is doing nothing symbolic that is particular or perculiar to the son of God in a symbolic drawing. The kid in the picture is nailing breastfeeding too and entering the obvious next stage: ‘I can feed, now I will survey my kingdom with a nipple clamped in my mouth at whichever angle I choose, however I contort my mother’s boob’.

He’s not tiny, not a newborn (unlike most images we get of breastfeeding these days). He’s easily out of his early days, a couple of months, maybe quite a bit older in my view. Look at the fat folds! Mostly though, his strong but relaxed cheeks give him away, and his posture. He’s owning that breast, and turning away regardless of how painful that is to his mother, to look out and away. And check out the hand, resting on her boob, territorial, protective, about to slap in some primaeval attempt to increase let down, perhaps, if that frizzy haired tot is anything like mine, about to pinch the flesh in his thick fingers just to remind her he’s there.

His neck is taut, he’s latched, and crucially, like all breastfed babies once securely on, he’s looking for a better offer. He may be looking away, this sucking Christchild: to the heavens, to his Father, to his future, on humanity, to us the viewer of the painting, perpetual and timeless voyeurs on his infancy, or however you want to read it with an art historian’s hat on.

With a mother’s hat, I’ll tell you this: for all the historical debate over whether Mary is beautiful enough in it, or her hands too clumsy, I think that the genius of the picture is its reality. The intention may be some symbolism of Christ looking in another direction, directly at us in fact as his mother gazes down immersed in that wonderful view of their face you get when they are feeding. The truth? They all do that. All babies. The minute they learn to feed and can control their head they plug in then look out. On the tit: the perfect vantage point to assess the world you are going to conquer be you God, monster, saviour or, simply, milk-obsessed scamp.

Whatever the truth, that baby is all too human.

14 Replies to “The Fine Art of Parenting: breastfeeding and Leonardo”

  1. There are queries about the bfing position? it's bang on IME. Perfect squirmy nosy babe. Or perhaps even toddler. Mine is easily that size, but skinnier and he's 2 1/2. Those observations must have been made by someone who's never been in close quarters with a breastfed child

  2. Thanks Mars and for the FB link!
    Flaf, I KNOW. Apart from never risking the little scamp naked the pose, boob grab, contortion is just exactly like Newborn's feeding right now. Although I look marginally less serene in the face of it and Jesus doesn't look like he'd snort or fart *quite* so much…

  3. And I agree re: size. Depending on the centile he's following that baby could be 8 – 18 months. Was fascinated when reading around reviews of the painting and the exhibition – the language describing him as an infant and young, as if people can't bring themselves to see him as an older baby/toddler breastfeeding

  4. ps did you know this style of painting is called 'Maria Lactans' and is often kept from display, especially in the States? (i learnt this from Ina May's Guide to Breastfeeding!) xxx

  5. Thank you Mule. I didn't know the term, and I find it so sad that it would even be considered an issue. Bizarre, really. The nudity is natural, I quite like that you can see her nipple but it is clearly not an erotic picture. An art historian friend of mine also commented on facebook that the milk represents divine knowledge being passed down to the Christ.

  6. Hey, I think it's fabulous that you're 'still' breastfeeding your baby – perhaps I read it wrong, but why on earth do you feel you must defend yourself?(for a 'thousand reasons') Isn't it a totally normal thing to do? Your milk is a wonderful start to give your baby so please keep going! The World Health Organisation recommends 2 years or more so let's run with that (I'm 'still' feeding my 11 month old).
    Thank you for your post :))

  7. Hey singing mama, You are right I probably sound a bit defensive. I can't quite explain it, as it makes me feel like I'm failing my feminist self but I do find myself feeling awkward about feeding him now he can walk around and shout. I don't feel awkward about other people feeding, or anything like that, but I feel quite strange, especially feeding in public. I wish I didn't. I think it is partly a chicken and egg thing – you don't see it a lot, so it seems unusual or weird, so you (by which I mean, I) feel like I have to explain it somehow! So glad you liked the post.

  8. As the mum of a nursing 2 year old, I can totally relate to the image. It is very realistic and pretty much the same pose that mine strikes during every one of our feeds.

    Brilliant post. Thank you.

    Oh and feeding out and about is tricky especially when they point and squeal for 'dat side' not so easy to be discrete.

  9. Nice post L and I fully agree. As a breastfeeding mum, there's nothing like a picture of a child giving his mother's nipple a good yank to bring the tears to my eyes. If anything is unrealistic about the image, it has to be his mother's serene smile.

    Not that Leonardo shouldn't bring tears to one's eyes for more noble reasons….

  10. Yes, mine haven't quite got to the stage of having a word for it before self weaning (at least Spider-boy didn't, his brother is not letting go for now). Newborn does sometimes wink at me or chuckle to himself if he cons me into a feed when I'm not concentrating and he's unhooked my top before I could decide whether I would or not. Rascal.

  11. Yes, she's looking down so loving and he's chowing on the nip, caning it and pulling. The shocker. You'd like the exhibition, v good stuff (obviously!).

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