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Mary suckling her Child

Page 78 The Flight into Egypt: A Theme from the Infancy of Christ

From: Major Themes in Ethiopian Paintings; Stanislaw Chojnacki


   In the 17th century two other innovations were introduced into the figure of Mary. Are they genuinely Ethiopian?

   One innovation was Mary dressed in a Syrian maphorion similar to that in her S. Maria Maggiore painting.

The other innovation was Mary suckling her Child while riding a donkey. Not a single instance of this is known in Ethiopian paintings prior to the middle of the 17th century. Around that date, the new form of a nursing Mary appeared and since then has been constantly used.101 The prominent breast of Mary and the realistically drawn Child in process of suckling, suggest that Ethiopian painters have given special significance to this theme. What is the reason for it? It seems that the painters have been motivated by theoretical considerations. Perhaps one has to search for the explanation in two apocryphal Eastern Christian texts, the so called Prayer of the Virgin at Bartos and the Prayer of the Virgin at Golgotha. The texts of mixed, magic and religious character have been known to Ethiopians since the 14th century but enjoyed particular popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries.102 These texts describe Mary's prayers during which her Son descended from heaven and concluded with her the so-called Covenant of Mercy or Pact of Intercession; this means that whatever is asked of the mother will be given by her Son. The texts are to be found at the origin of the iconographic form called the Covenant or Pact of Mercy developed in 17th-century paintings. The form represents the very moment of bestowing the intercessionary power on Mary. The introduction of the nursing theme into the Flight into Egypt seems to be also related to the above texts. In course of justifying her request, Mary twice makes mention of the hunger and thirst she suffered because of her Son during the exile to Egypt. In addition she repeats several times that she fed him from her own (s 79) breast.103 The spiritual significance given to this physiological function is suggested by the following passage in Mary's speech. "Greetings to you my King and my God who has sucked milk from my breast so as to make the lncarnation complete".104 This is in agreement with the teaching of Church Fathers that Mary's nursing of the Child is the manifestation of the reality of lncarnation. Moreover, in the Prayer at Golgotha there is a comment on the above, "It is he who feeds with his clemency all being which has a body".105 Sucking of the breast is a popular theme in Ethiopian hymns: "He who feeds all creation was suckled as a babe at thy breast" is mentioned in some form in all hymns of the Virgin.



100 ReauIc II 281 f.

101 According to VogFlucht 13, the motif of feeding the Child on the way is rare in European art and limited to Dutch 16th-century painting. Schiller gives two examples of Mary feeding the Child while taking rest (SchillIc fig. 328 and 332) without elaborating the theme.

102 In the Vatican Library there is a large number of Mss containing the Prayers of Mary at Golgotha and at Bartos (apud Parthos): Bor. Aeth. 26,1390-1408; Aeth. Vat. 37 and 42, both of 15th century; Aeth. Vat. 35, 1536. The British Library possesses several17th and 18th-century Mss which contain the same prayers.

103 BassApE 114, 25, 31f. and 37.

104 BassApE I 25.

105 BassApE I 25.