Retable of the Virgin Lactans
Second half of the 16th century
Oil on panel
Chapter room, Old Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain
In the center Mary nurses Jesus, who turns to engage the viewer's eye. Mary's blue mantle with the star on the shoulder is a common attribute. Two angels stand on clouds to her left and right. The on our left holds a pitcher of flowers such as is often seen in Annunciations; the other holds a basket of fruit of some sort.
Above the Madonna is a small panel depicting the Coronation: In the center section Father and Son each hold the crown above the Virgin. Outside the green borders marking off this scene are adoring angels. The panel is flanked by quarter-circle panels picturing the Annunciation. Unlike most Annunciations, this one puts Mary on the left and replaces the dove and lightray with a stream of water flowing from a rock into a large vessel seemingly of stone and shaped like a baptismal font. This symbol draws on the water miracle in Exodus 17:1-6 to represent the flowing of divinity into Mary. In the water miracle, the Israelites in the desert complained of thirst, so God had Moses strike a rock and water flowed from it. Paul interprets that the Israelites "drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ." The commentaries on Exodus 17 collected in the Glossa Ordinaria (I, 943-45) reiterate that the rock is Christ and interpret the water as the "saving blood" that flowed from his side when he was on the cross and leads "murmurers" back to harmony with God:
Sitiens populus pro aqua murmuravit contra Moysen, ideo iubet Deus ut ostendat eis petram ex qua bibent. Si quis autem legens Moysen murmurat adversus eum, displicet ei litera legis, ostendit ei Moyses petram quae est Christus, et ducit ad ipsam unde bibat et sitim reficiat.
Being thirsty for water the people murmured against Moses, so God ordered that he show them the rock from which they would drink. For if anyone reads Moses [i.e., the laws of the Pentateuch] and murmurs against it and dislikes the letter of the law, Moses shows him the rock that is Christ and leads him to that rock, where he will drink and his thirst will be refreshed. (My translation)
The panel left of the Madonna pictures the apocryphal episode in which Mary gives her belt to St. Thomas. Please follow this link for a discussion of the panel. On the right is a typical post-Brigittine Nativity: light emanates from the child, whom Mary and Joseph kneel to worship.
The three panels below present SS. Agatha (breasts on plate), Cosmas and Damian (one with a urinal, a glass vessel that medieval physicians used to inspect urine the other with a box of medicaments), and Margaret (cross in left arm, dragon in bottom left corner).
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Read more about images of the Madonna and Child, the Nativity, the Annunciation, and the Coronation.
Read more about images of Saints Cosmas and Damian, St. Margaret, and St. Thomas.
Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.