- A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750
Margaret R. Miles's most recent book, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350–1750, explores the intersection of religious studies, psychoanalytical theory, and Italian art in order to demonstrate that the female breast was transformed from a religious symbol to a secular one over the course of the early modern period. She argues more broadly that not only the breast, but also the naked human body, was stripped of its religious subjectivity and became in the modern era merely an erotic and medical sign. The book opens with an introductory chapter that outlines Miles's methodology, assumptions, and sources. The second chapter grows out of a canonical article on the Virgin's bare breast in Trecento and Quattrocento art that Miles published more than twenty years ago. [End Page 883] It is followed by a chapter that explores images of Mary Magdalen's breast. This section, the strongest in the volume, views the saint as both repentant sinner and sex worker, and suggests that some paintings of the Magdalen express "a longing for the convergence of the erotic and the spiritual" (14). Chapter 4 explores the breast in the context of scientific, especially anatomical, studies, and the penultimate chapter investigates the breast in the context of pornography. An afterword interrogates modern images of the breast, both male and female.
One great strength of the book is its visual analysis of images. For example, Miles notes how Artemesia Gentileschi, in her painting in the Galleria Spada, depicts the Christ Child momentarily pausing from his breastfeeding to gaze lovingly at his mother, gently touching her face as he recognizes that they are two separate beings. Miles also effectively analyzes the strategies that artists employed to ensure that the Madonna did not arouse erotic thoughts: she was depicted with large breasts (not the Renaissance ideal), which seem detached from her body, and her clothes are tidy, avoiding the disarray that would have suggested sexual activity. Miles further reveals a thorough grasp of contemporary history. She considers the pervasive influence of the printing press, the effects of the rise of capitalism, ambivalent attitudes towards wet nurses, contemporary explanations of breast cancer, and the persecution of women as witches. She also sensitively discusses religious ideas, from the rich associations between breast milk and mercy to the searing effects of the Council of Trent. Although the assumption of a binary opposition between the "extremely bad" breast of seducers and witches and the "extremely perfect" breast of the Madonna underlies much of the book, Miles also recognizes that "the spiritual and the erotic are closely aligned" (139).
Several problems weaken this book. First, the breast was never a purely religious symbol, as a glance at medieval illustrations of legal texts or ancient Roman tales shows. (See, for example, my book on images of rape.) Second, Miles seems unaware of critically important studies, such as Martha Easton's on Saint Agatha, Megan Holmes's on the Madonna lactans in Quattrocento Florence, and canonical publications on Italian pornography by Ian Moulton and Bette Talvacchia. We might excuse the first of these lapses on the ground that Miles states that she will focus on Italian sources, if she did not refer to numerous Northern ones as well, including Jean Gerson, Saint Bernard, and Rogier van der Weyden. Furthermore, it is a gross oversimplification to declare that "Italy was the acknowledged center of artistic activity and innovation for most of the early modern period" (5–6) and that from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries "the Renaissance gave Italy intellectual and artistic leadership in Western Europe" (33–34). In addition, Miles makes unsubstantiated declarations such as "women seem to have enjoyed more respect in societies in which the breast was regarded as a powerful symbol of nourishment and loving care than in those societies in which it was viewed as an erotic and/or medical object" (4). Finally, much of the...