Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this detail from the northern semidome of the Coptic Red Monastery church, the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ child. This motif is known in the Eastern Christian tradition as the Galaktotrophousa, or "she who nourishes with milk." The Virgin's deep-set eyes framed by a bright halo are the focal point of the full scene. She is dressed in a purplish red cloth and the imperial theme is further underlined by her regal throne and footstool. Christ is portrayed as a small child rather than an infant and stretches out both hands as he is about to drink. While holding Christ, Mary fingers a white fringed sash with her left hand that Bolman suggests is a liturgical textile linking the painting to the Eucharist.

    In the full scene in the semidome, Mary and the Christ child are flanked by prophets. They all appear within an elaborate setting of ornamented arcades and columns further decorated with censers and hanging lamps. From left to right the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel stand holding inscribed scrolls. Smaller figures appear before the columns: the prophet Elijah, the Apostle Peter, the Apostle Paul, and Moses. Two angels cense the air above Mary and in the upper corners Joseph (on the left) and Salome, Mary's doubting midwife in the infancy gospels, (on the right) bear witness to the incarnation of God in human form.

    The Red Monastery in late antique Egypt was part of a federation that formed around 360 CE. It joined two men's houses, a central monastery, now known as the White Monastery and the smaller Red Monastery with a women's monastery at nearby Atripe. Under the leadership of Shenoute of Atripe in the fourth and fifth centuries, the federation flourished. His codification of monastic rules, recently translated as The Canons of Our Fathers gives evidence of the varied dimensions of monastic life including economic activities and medical care as well as liturgical rites and ascetic practices. There are also indications that the nuns resisted Shenoute's direct involvement in their affairs. After a few of Shenoute's visits to the women's monastery ended in disastrous misunderstandings, he settled on this form of reporting:
    426 We have repeatedly said, many times, and written, that the mother or
    mothers of those in the village (the nuns) shall write to us here about all the
    things that they need. And we too shall write to you (plur.) about all the
    things that we need in our (men's) domain. And except in grave emergency,
    those (men) in the gatehouse in your (women's) domain shall not speak with
    you, nor shall you speak with them. For us and for you, writing is the surest
    and most profitable thing for our gathering.

    The painting of Mary and the Christ Child in the Red Monastery semidome comes from the third phase of church decoration. There is remaining evidence of three iconographic programs in the church (late 5th century, first half of the 6th century and second half of the 6th century) that reflect sophisticated theological ideas. The second phase of decoration included a Christ enthroned with smaller paintings of Moses and the burning bush on one side and his reception of the commandments on the other side. This iconography represents Christ's divinity and links Moses as a typological forerunner. Angels with implements for the Eucharist appear next to the figures of Moses and reference a heavenly liturgy as well as the one offered by priests in the monastery church. Bolman argues that the figure of the nursing Mary in the third decorative program makes the economy of salvation explicit. The Virgin is about to nourish Christ with the Logos which comes directly from God in heaven. At the same time, the scene foreshadows Christ's sacrifice for humankind in its references both to the milk of salvation promised to the just and to the ritual of the Eucharist.

  • Source: American Research Center in Egypt
  • Rights: Reproduced here with the permission of the American Research Center in Egypt
  • Subject (See Also): Breast Feeding Eucharist, Sacrament Madonna Lactans (Artistic Motif) Mary, Virgin, Saint and Child in Art Monks Theology
  • Geographic Area: Northern Africa
  • Century: 6
  • Date: 550- 600
  • Related Work: Virgin and child surrounded by saints, northern semidome, Red Monastery church, Sohag, Egypt, ca. sixth century. Source of photo: American Research Center in Egypt website.
    Prophet Daniel, northern semidome, Red Monastery church, Sohag, Egypt, ca. sixth century. Source of photo: American Research Center in Egypt.
    View of the North-Eastern and South-Eastern apses, Red Monastery church, Sohag, Egypt, 360 degree view of the triconch in the Red Monastery church, Sohag, Egypt. Source: 360cities.net site.
    History and virtual tour of the Red Monastery church. Source of film: American Research Center in Egypt.
    Isis breastfeeding Harpocrates, copy of a wall painting, House B50 in Karanis, Egypt, fourth century C.E.
    Mary breastfeeding Christ, Wadi Natrun, Church of the Monastery of the Syrians (Deir es-Souriyan), second half of the seventh century C.E. Source: Photo by Bruce Allardice. Note that Mary holds a Eucharistic cloth similar to the one in the Red Monastery painting.
  • Current Location: Sohag, Egypt, Church of the Red Monastery (also known as the Church of Saints Bishai and Bigol)
  • Original Location: Sohag, Egypt, Church of the Red Monastery (also known as the Church of Saints Bishai and Bigol)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wall painting; Tempera paints
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  • Related Resources: Blanke, Louise. An Archaeology of Egyptian Monasticism: Settlement, Economy and Daily Life at the White Monastery Federation. Yale Egyptology, 2019;
    Bolman, Elizabeth S. "The Enigmatic Coptic Galaktotrophousa and the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt." Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of theTheotokos in Byzantium. Edited by Maria Vassilaki. Ashgate, 2005. Pages 13-22;
    Bolman, Elizabeth S. "Late Antique Aesthetics, Chromophobia and the Red Monastery, Sohag, Egypt," Eastern Christian Art 3 (2006): 1-24. Available on academia.edu;
    Dilley, Paul. "Dipinti in Late Antiquity and Shenoute's Monastic Federation: Text and Image in the Paintings of the Red Monastery," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 165 (2008): 111-128;
    Higgins, Sabrina. "Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography," Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 3-4 (2012): 71-90;
    Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery: Egyptian Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2002;
    Layton, Bentley. The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute. Oxford University Press, 2014;
    The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt. Edited by Elizabeth S. Bolman. American Research Center in Egypt and Yale University Press, 2016.