Condemned to starvation in a Roman prison, an old man is kept alive by the milk he sucks from the breast of his daughter who visits him every day. Once surprised by a guard, the authorities did not put her on trial. In fact, they released her father, even providing him food the rest of his days, so impressed were they by such a selfless love.
No, this is not a Christian story. It is the truly pagan tale of Cimon and his daughter Pero, as told by Valerius Maximus in his De factis dictisque memorabilibus (Of deads and sayings of memorable men, first century ). The title ‘Caritas Romana’, ‘Roman Love’, must be of a later date, influenced by Christianity. In the eyes of the Romans, Pero’s act tells an emblematic story of pietas – more exactly, of family pietas. One should respect the elementary relations of kinship, even if a transgression of society’s law is required in doing so.
In Valerius Maximus, the story of Cimon and Pero is preceded by similar story, this time about an imprisoned mother breast-fed by her daughter. “Where does the sense of duty not penetrate?”, Valerius asks. Even in prison, family piety is present. Valerius then reinforces his argument by adding the Cimon and Pero story. Cimon had buried illegally his father and, therefore, was sentenced to death by starvation. Illegally, Pero breast-feeds her father, not afraid of the death sentence that awaits her. The family piety of the father is honored by that of his daughter.
In the seventeenth century, the Caritas Romana iconography became very popular. In the next century, its success lasted, but then the daughter was often accompanied by her child. Had people become sensitive for the perverse, incestuous connotations that could be read in the image? With a child on the mother’s hip, such connotations were less easily made.
The iconographic topic of an older man drinking from a young lady’s breast has its Christian version as well, and here, an erotic reading is less easily avoidable. It is the image of Bernard of Clairvaux drinking the milk from the Holy Mother’s breast. In fact there are several legends uniting Bernard to that breast. One tells of a vision he once had in front of Mary’s statue, asking if that sculpted piece of wood could really be the Mother of God. At that very moment, the statue sprinkled milk from her breast to his lips – a gesture by which the Holy Mary revealed herself as a real mother, mediating between him and her Son.
Another version of the legend lets Mary appear to Bernard when he had fallen asleep during prayer. It is then that she is said to have put her breast in his mouth in order to let enter the wisdom of God (“ Lors se mist en oroisons devant Nostre Dame et s’endormi. Et Nostre Dame li mist sa saincte mamelle en la bouche et li aprint la devine science”; in : Ci Nous Dit, fourteenth century French exemplum book). Iconographically, this scene has found its way to the colonies, to Peru, but picturing another saint: Bernadus became San Pedro Nalosco.
In the Christian narrative of the Lactatio Bernardi, the divine truth does not incarnate itself via a dying male corpse, but a milk-giving breast. It is not the most frequent image of the incarnation, but it is not absent in the Christian tradition either.
More than we think, Christianity is a religion of the Mother. Which is not to say that, therefore, it is a female religion.