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Title: A survey of breast iconography in western art with a comparative analysis of its interpretation in Maltese collections
Authors: Swain, Charles
Keywords: Breast in art
Breastfeeding in art
Maternity in art
Christian art and symbolism
Women in art
Issue Date: 2016
Abstract: the centuries and concentrates on its expression in Western Art. It also attempts to explore the temporal and thematic variations in Maltese collections when compared with those of mainland Europe. Various studies of the Nude Form have been published in the past but breast iconography has rarely been dealt with as a separate subject. Most often, the female breast has been closely linked with sexuality with few attempts to relate it to other aspects of femininity. A survey of breast iconography as represented in Maltese collections inevitably concentrates on its depiction in religious art as patronage of the arts in Malta was dominated by the Catholic Church for centuries. This is particularly evident in the art produced during the prolonged Baroque period when art also flourished under the patronage of the Knights of St. John. The image of a woman nursing her child owes its origin to the art of Ancient Egypt and Greek Mythology. It reappears in Early Christian art in images of the Madonna nursing Jesus. In Orthodox iconography, the breast is depicted as a mere appendage to the female form of the Theotokos Galactrophousa for reasons of modesty. Maria Lactans prevailed in the Early Renaissance as one of the more popular images in religious art until the wave of Humanism which influenced artists at the time introduced novel ways of interpreting the theme and a more realistic approach in depicting the female breast. During the Renaissance, Italian artists expanded the motif of the Madonna del Latte to include variations on the theme such as the Madonna of Humility and the Virgin of Graces. Northern European artists preferred to depict the lactating Virgin in homely internal or rural settings rather than in heavenly majesty, surrounded by saints. By the end of the 16th century the breastfeeding image was established as a symbol of Caritas both in religious and in secular art. The female protagonists of the Old and the New Testament narratives provided a fertile medium for artists to exercise their imagination in depicting the exposed female breast. Women of Honour and Women of Desire were immortalized on panel and canvas in paintings by the Great Masters, destined to be copied and interpreted in an astonishing variety of ways in the centuries that followed. Secular patrons encouraged artists to reproduce scenes from Greek Mythology in which sensuality replaced piety as the reason for depicting the female breast. Over the years, the boundaries of breast iconography were extended to include the breast as a symbol of noble sentiments such as Fortitude and Liberty as well as the more mundane notions of Lust and Sensuality. The various changes in style of the Modern Era are reflected in the way artists have continued to depict the female breast. They have used it to explore the human psyche, dissected it down to cubist forms and distorted its image to express their own surrealist dreams. Malta’s artistic heritage provides a fertile background for the exploration of the breast theme, especially in relation to religious paintings in local churches and museums. The interpretation of the theme by the great masters of Western art inevitably occupies centre stage in this essay although works by less well-known artists which highlight a pluralistic approach to the subject are also included.
Description: B.A.(HONS)HIST.OF ART
Appears in Collections:Dissertations - FacArt - 2016
Dissertations - FacArtHa - 2016

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