(Painting: "The Vision of St Bernard," by Alonzo Cano, c.1650, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)
This is a painting of the Virgin Mary squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Quick--what's your first reaction to it? Is it amusing? Disgusting? Just plain weird? Or is it a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence? Your answer to this question should help you gauge how much our contemporary culture has shaped the way you view a woman's body. It may also help you gauge how much you experience your spirituality in gnostic categories rather than finding the grace of God present through physical, sacramental realities as well.
If you know anything about history and Catholic devotion, then you can probably guess that this painting was intended to bring to view a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence. The painter, Alonzo Cano, was not always a man known for his devout temperament (he had serious issues with his temper), but his works all reflect the dominant, reverential Catholic spirituality of his day. This painting represents a famous event in the spiritual life of Saint Bernard (12th century), one of the most influential Christians of the Middle Ages, who was known especially for his reverence towards Mary.
But we live in a culture where women's breasts have been sexualized, where even breastfeeding (a thoroughly non-sexual act) is often attacked as being inappropriate when done in public. So this painting, though there is nothing overtly sexual about it, takes us by surprise. It's not the sort of painting that any of us would now think of commissioning to hang in our churches. Even though it shows poignantly the reverence of a great man of God to one of the greatest human exemplars of our faith, to the vessel wherein God's full being dwelt for a time, and though it shows us the nurturing, life-giving spiritual grace he receives from contemplating her faith, we 21st-century Americans have a tough time seeing that. At least, not at first.
Full disclosure--my first reaction on seeing this painting was to chuckle. When we were looking for a print of a painting to hang in our dining room, I joked with my wife that we should choose this one just to see the reactions of our dinner guests. But the point is that my own reaction serves to make me aware of how much contemporary culture has affected my sensibilities about devotion, sexuality, and the human body. My quite natural reaction to this painting in a 21st-century context would have been offensive in the culture that produced it. So the question is this: have my sensibilities gone awry because of my cultural context (or perhaps because of my own wickedness of heart), or was Catholic Spain of the 17th century riotously naive in their estimation of what was an appropriate means of expressing devotion?
This is one of the great benefits of studying old paintings (and reading old books). They can, sometimes in remarkable ways, reveal to us our own cultural and intellectual blind spots. And once we know those blind spots are there, we can work on mending our worldviews, or at least taking into account a humble understanding of our own biases in the future. We need to remember that not everybody has always held the same sensibilities that we do now. And we need to at least entertain the possibility that we millennials might be seeing things askew, and the old reverences may in fact be right.