Raphael and the ‘Madonna Lactans’

Figure 1: Raphael, The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art Washington DC.

Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna from 1508 (Fig. 1) is typical of Raphael due to its subject as a Madonna and Child image. However, the composition with the Christ Child clinging to Mary’s dress as she covers one of her breasts, looks like a nursing gesture and is reminiscent of Madonna Lactans iconography. The Madonna Lactans is a subsect of Madonna and Child images. Typically, Mary has one breast exposed and Christ is either reaching for the exposed breast or already nursing. These images at first appear to have a sexual component due to Mary’s revealed nature. However, the imagery is deeply rooted in religious doctrine and emphasizes the materiality of Mary and Christ’s own humanity. Although typically connected with Northern European art, this theme was actually developed in Italy and present throughout Italy and Europe in early Christian and Renaissance art.

           Although Mary is not exposed, as is typical for these images, Christ’s gesture closely mimics realistic nursing gestures of infants. Additionally, his direct gaze with the viewer and Mary’s own hand placement drawing attention to her breast, serve to frame Mary’s left breast and imply a Madonna Lactans if the action were to continue. By examining clearly defined Madonna Lactans, the iconography of Madonna Lactans, and Raphael’s own oeuvre and creative process I argue that this painting is in fact a Madonna Lactans, but Raphael’s own unique take on the theme. Additionally, I argue that this work is in fact part of a group of works that Raphael created (most now lost) as he experimented with the iconography of Madonna Lactans.

The term Madonna Lactans refers to a specific and relatively small subsect of Marian imagery that began to emerge in the late 14th century. Although this iconographical trend is not frequently discussed today especially in connection with Italian art, it was popular in Italy and throughout Western Europe. Frequently associated with the Madonna of Humility, Madonna Lactans derived from a religious focus on the physicality of Jesus and other religious figures. The breast was seen as a feminine marker, sexual identifier, and sustainer of new life. This concept did not originate in the Renaissance but was utilized as far back as ancient Rome and Greece with images of Venus where her revealed breast was indicative of human perfection. Together, these two concepts led to Madonna Lactans. The prototype for these images varied by location and there were no set iconographical markers. Typically, however, the infant Jesus was drawing Mary’s exposed breast into his mouth while looking out at the viewer and Mary in some way drew attention to her breast either through its exposure or through her hand position which either framed the breast or cupped it as she directed Jesus mouth. The act of nursing was extremely important to this iconography, but so was the gaze of Christ. His direct eye contact with the viewer served to draw the viewer into the scene and engage them in this extremely human and physical interaction.

In the case of the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, Mary clearly falls into the second category discussed above as her breast is not exposed, however some of Raphael’s contemporaneous drawings show a revealed breast. The lack of an exposed breast is noticeable, but this is not the only such example. Andrea di Bartolo’s Madonna of Humility from c. 1410 (Fig. 2) is in the same position as Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna and also does not have an exposed breast. However, Andrea di Bartolo’s Madonna of Humilty, The Blessing Christ, Two Angels, and a Donor from c. 1380/1390 (Fig. 3) is very exposed as Christ seems to tug on Mary’s breast as he nurses. At least for Andrea di Bartolo, artists did not have to choose between Madonna Lactans with exposed breasts or more conservative interpretations.  While the revealed Mary was a common aspect of this thematic composition, more important to its significance was the act of Jesus nursing or attempting to do so. Both Andrea di Bartolo and Raphael imply a soon to be nursing baby despite having Mary fully covered.

Figure 2: Andrea di Barolo, Madonna of Humility, portable altarpiece, c. 1410, tempera and tooled gold on poplar panels, Brooklyn Museum New York.
Figure 3: Andrea di Bartolo, Madonna of Humility, The Blessing Christ, Two Angels, and a Donor, c. 1380/1390, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art Washington DC.

These images would now be considered to at least have sexual undertones if not erotic ones however, at the time, this was not the case. Seen most clearly in the Cult of the Virgin, the physical body of Holy figures was a subject of debate. The Holy body was seen to be absent from the physical realm but there was also a desire by worshippers to have a physical, human interaction with the Holy body. This interaction led to a plethora of religious artworks such as reliquaries and other objects that encouraged direct physical engagement between the viewer and the piece of art. While not meant to be handled physically, Madonna Lactans emerged from this same desire. Specifically, in Florentine society at this time, Madonna Lactans served as important cult imagery for the Cult of the Virgin but also for the Cult of the Virgin’s Milk. This religious group focused on the sacred nature of Mary’s breast milk and the miracles that came to be associated with her milk as a pure and nourishing source. This religious focus emerged in Tuscany in the latter half of the fifteenth century and was importantly the motivating factor behind many Madonna Lactans created around the turn of the sixteenth century. There was even a group of Madonna and Child images that showed Mary dripping or spraying breast milk at the viewer or at other figures in the work. The Cult of the Virgin’s Milk believed Mary’s breast milk to have healing and other miraculous properties. By showing Jesus nursing, artists not only conveyed Jesus’ humanity and physicality, but also the importance of Mary’s milk even to Jesus.

The humanity of baby Jesus needing to nurse from the Virgin Mary directly related to the physicality of their bodies. It was also an important aspect of the Holy family that artists and patrons alike explored and encouraged. The act of nursing and needing sustenance was seen as a very human characteristic. Any art that depicted Jesus acting as an undeveloped baby contributed to this sense of humanity and the idea that Jesus had to grow before becoming the savior. In terms of eroticism, it is also important to note that the erotic nature of Holy figures was seen more and more frequently. Images featuring scenes like the martyrdom of Saint Agatha and other female saints regularly showed the Holy women completely exposed in what would be considered erotic in another instance. However, as mentioned, these works were not considered erotic at the time. The shift in represented sexuality of figures became more obvious at this time as there was a new renewed interest in naturalism. For Mary and other female saints, this meant that an exposed breast looked as if it could actually be a breast and would have been anatomically correct. Naturalism led to less defined boundaries between the sacred and profane visibly as well as blurring of these boundaries thematically as can be seen in Madonna Lactans.

Figure 4: Leonardo da Vinci, The Madonna and Child (The Litta Madonna), mid-1490s, tempera on canvas (transferred from panel), Hermitage Museum st. Petersburg Russia.

Although his life was cut short, Raphael was a prolific artist creating work for a large number of patrons across Italy. However, one of the most common themes within his oeuvre is the Madonna and Child. He paints the pair in a variety of compositions, experimenting with poses, background, scale, and just about every other detail throughout his life. He would frequently explore these details over a series of paintings or drawings leading up to paintings, making his creative process clear to contemporary and modern viewers. Because there are so many Madonna’s in his oeuvre, the lack of Madonna Lactans is noticeable. This is especially true at the time of the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna’s completion in 1508. Raphael was just finishing his time in Florence where the majority of his finished works were Madonna and Child images and where Madonna Lactans imagery was the most popular. It was during this time that Raphael experimented the most with Madonna Lactans ideas in his drawings and more general Madonna and Child compositions. Therefore, to have not completed an explicit Madonna Lactans painting during this period is unusual when considered within this context. Even Leonardo da Vinci painted a Madonna Lactans in the mid-1490s (Fig. 4).

Starting with his contemporaries and patrons, Raphael’s drawings were considered central to his work and preparation for his paintings. From large collections of the drawings, scholars such as Paul Joannides have determined that the drawings were made with an end result in mind and not only as casual creative expressions. Very few drawings exist that are not connected to finished projects. Raphael used his drawings to work on the development of compositions and as a major part of his working and creative process. At this time, patrons would commission artists to paint a particular theme or composition, but a variety of the details were up to the artist. Raphael and other artists of this time would use drawings to experiment with compositions, study locations or figures from life, and work on other details before beginning the painting itself. Therefore, through drawings, scholars can see how certain compositions developed from early sketches to finished paintings.

As the drawings were part of his creative process, many of Raphael’s drawings were not meant for public consumption so are not titled or dated. However, drawings such as these two (Fig. 5 and 6), show that Raphael was not only aware of the more traditional Madonna Lactans iconography, but was also experimenting with it in at least two different ways: one with Jesus already suckling and one with Mary directing Jesus to her breast. These drawings are not completed works or compositions but clearly show Jesus nursing in one and Mary cupping her breast as she leads Jesus’ mouth to it in the other. Other interpretations of Madonna Lactans seem to highlight the exposed breast in a more sexual than naturalistic way. The breast frequently feels disconnected from the rest of the body and the interaction between Jesus and Mary. In the case of Raphael’s drawings though, and the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, Jesus and Mary seem to interact in a realistic mother and child way not only through their positions but also through Jesus’ interaction with Mary’s exposed breast. The breast no longer seems sexual, but instead seems to be a natural extension as Jesus looks to Mary for nourishment. These experiments through drawings and paintings show Raphael’s creative process as he tested different poses to show Mary and Jesus interacting.

Figure 5: Raphael, Virgin and Child, pen, brush, and dark-grey wash on paper, Stockholm, Nationalmsueum.
Figure 6: Raphael, Virgin Suckling Child, black chalk on paper, Paris Louvre.

Although not the traditional composition, Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna should still be considered a Madonna Lactans. Mary’s pose mimics other Madonna Lactans images despite her breast being covered. Her left hand still draws attention to her breast and the potential for breastfeeding. The Christ Child addresses the viewer directly as frequently seen in Madonna Lactans imagery. Most important though is Jesus’s left hand. He is grabbing Mary’s dress, attempting to pull it down and reveal her breast. This serves to not only further frame Mary’s breast, but also is a very common nursing gesture for infants in general. Additionally, Paul Barolsky made the important observation that Jesus’ facial expression mimics a baby who has just finished nursing. The flushed checks and slightly dazed expression further emphasize the humanity of this moment and the accuracy of a baby at his mother’s breast. The iconography may differ slightly from the norm, but the necessary themes for a Madonna Lactans are present and clearly the priority in the image.

Figure 7: Marco Dente da Ravenna after a lost painting by Raphael of c. 1508, Madonna del Latte, c. 1515, engraving, British Museum London.

In addition to his own drawings, the work of Raphael’s students and members of his workshop also shed light on finished paintings that no longer exist or compositional themes that Raphael was working on. Paintings by two of his students, Marco dente da Ravenna and Pietro Torrigiano show more explicit Madonna Lactans indicating that Raphael was at least contemplating this thematic grouping. Additionally, Marco dente da Ravenna engraved a Madonna del Latte (Fig. 7) in 1515 that was described as “after a lost painting by Raphael of c. 1508,” the same year that the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna was finished. (Joannides, “A Sorority of Madonnas,” 752.) 1515 was still relatively early in Raphael’s career and his students, like Marco, were still in the early stages of their education and were copying Raphael more frequently than experimenting with their own themes. This in conjunction with its description as after a Raphael painting both indicate that Raphael was not only experimenting with Madonna Lactans iconography and different compositions, but that he had already created at least one painting on this theme. This painting could have been a more conservative image like the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna that Marco wanted to adjust. However, it also could have been a more traditional Madonna Lactans that did feature the exposed breast. This lost painting was most like the Madonna Lactans that Raphael’s other paintings and drawings were leading up to and that now no longer exists.

After examining Raphael’s oeuvre of Madonna’s as well as his drawings, the two mentioned above stand out as not clearly connected to any one finished project as there is no known existing Madonna Lactans with an exposed breast. However, we know that very few if any drawings did not relate directly to a project. With these drawings in mind, I propose that the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna is part of a larger grouping where Raphael was experimenting with Madonna Lactans iconography and composition. This has not been previously proposed for multiple reasons that I have disputed in this paper. First of all, scholars argue that Madonna Lactans were not a well enough known theme and that they were too much of a niche composition for an artist like Raphael. However, with the Cult of the Virgin and artists like Leonardo interested in this theme, this argument holds no weight. Additionally, his drawings show that Raphael was clearly thinking about Madonna Lactans. The existence of at least two different drawings where Raphael is experimenting with different aspects of Madonna Lactans show that Raphael was not only thinking about this theme generally, but also more specifically when it came to his own work. The second argument was that Raphael was too conservative to paint Mary with a revealed breast. However, this is not convincing due to the variety of nude women in his work, most noticeably La Fornarina. La Fornarina is fully exposed and has explicit sexual undertones that Raphael highlights through his interpretation. His drawings also do not support this conservative argument. Instead, they point to a specific choice made by Raphael to depict a type of Madonna Lactans that focused on the interaction between Jesus, the viewer, and Mary instead of on the exposed breast of Mary.

The final argument against this being a Madonna Lactans is that Raphael created so many other Madonna and Child images, many of which are related in some way and yet the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna does not have any Madonna Lactans connected with it. This argument is in fact in favor of a lost Madonna Lactans. Not only were Raphael’s drawings grouped and leading up to a finished painting, but many of his paintings were different experimentations on the same theme. As a Madonna Lactans however, the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna is isolated. The drawings indicated a more revealed finished painting and there are no other similar works that feature Mary and Jesus interacting in a similar way. However, if there was originally a Madonna Lactans by Raphael that showed Mary with an exposed breast, it would serve to connect these two disparate aspects and explain an existing inconsistency within Raphael’s oeuvre. The drawings would have been the first step of Raphael’s creative process. The second step would have been this lost painting. The final step would have been the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna. Raphael is not working up to a more revealing image with the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, but is instead making an already revealing Madonna Lactans more conservative.

Whether or not an actual Madonna Lactans image by Raphael exists or the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna was as far as Raphael was willing to go cannot be definitively known. However, it does not matter if there was another Madonna Lactans. The drawings and the work by his students could have led up to and been influenced by the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna. Even this scenario though supports the idea that the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna was in fact meant as a Madonna Lactans and should be interpreted as such. This does not necessarily change the existing interpretations of this painting, however there is an additional depth to the interpretation that must be discussed. This is not simply a Madonna and Child image, but also an image that emphasizes the importance of the physicality and humanity of Mary and Jesus and the infiltration of the Cult of the Virgin, Virgin’s Milk and Madonna Lactans themes into main stream artistic society of Florence and the rest of Italy. The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna as well as Raphael’s drawings and interest in Madonna and Child imagery, show that Raphael was thinking about the display of the Holy family and how to interact with existing artistic trends like Madonna Lactans in his own work. There was clearly a trend of imbibing Christian iconography with what is considered a sexual charge by modern viewers, whether it was Mary or other religious figures. Although not obliquely utilizing this theme, Raphael was responding to this trend through his Madonna and Child paintings. The extensive number of Madonna and Child paintings that Raphael made during his lifetime show that this was not only an important artistic theme but also one that Raphael grappled and experimented with throughout his life.

Raphael painted dozens of Madonna and Child images throughout his career but the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna remains unique in his oeuvre. However, the similar composition and the nursing gesture made by Christ link this work to the theme of Madonna Lactans over simple Madonna and Child images or Madonna’s enthroned. Coupled with these aspects and his drawings showing a suckling baby Jesus we can conclude that this work is Raphael’s version of a Madonna Lactans.



Barolsky, Paul. “Raphael and Breastfeeding.” Sources: Notes in the History of Art 34, No. 1 (2014): 16-17.

Burke, Jill. “Sex and Spirituality in 1500s Rome: Sebastiano del Piombo’s Martyrdom of Saint Agatha.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 88, No. 3 (Sep. 2006): 482-495.

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Joannides, Paul. Raphael and His Age: Drawings from the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Lille: Reunion des Musees Nationaux, 2002.

Holmes, Megan. “Disrobing the Virgin: The Madonna Lactans in Fifteenth Century Florentine Art.” in Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, eds. S. Matthews Grieco and G. Johnson. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, (1997): 167-195.

Lasareff, Victor. “Studies in the Iconography of the Virgin,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 20, No. 1 (Mar., 1938): 26-65.

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Sperling, Jutta Gisela. “Address, Desire, Lactation: On some Gender-bending Images of the “Virgin and Child” by Jan Gossaert.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch LXXVI (2015): 49-77.

Sperling, Jutta Gisela. “Squeezing, Squirting, Spilling Milk: The Lactation of Saint Bernard and the Flemish Madonna Lactans (ca. 1430-1530).” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 71, No. 3 (2018): 868-918.

Yandell, Cathy. “Iconography and Iconoclasm: The Female Breast in French Renaissance Culture.” The French Review Vol. 83, No. 2 (Feb. 2010): 540-558.

One thought on “Raphael and the ‘Madonna Lactans’

  1. ENTIRELY CORRECT ABOUT THE NICCOLINI-COWPER MADONNA. I have been teaching it as a nursing Madonna for years, but I think the ‘drunk’ look on the the child’s face indicates that he has just finished nursing. I recognized the expression from the face of the daughter of one of my students when she was nursing!


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