Breasts as a Symbol of Power

In a recent presentation Professor of Religious Studies Katerina Von Kellenbach compared milk and food and blood and explored older, religious iconography and modern images to understand the importance of breasts.

On Oct. 25, as part of Females United for Sexual Equality’s Love Your Body Week, Von Kellenbach spoke about and led a discussion on the breasts as a symbol of power.

Her presentation reviewed iconography of the Virgin Mary from the Christian tradition, comparisons of Mary to other symbols of power within Christianity as well as these religious conceptions of breasts compared to more secular, modern images and ideas about the power of breasts in contemporary society.

Accompanied by images of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus Kellenbach pointed out how Jesus was dependent on his mother, specifically her breasts, which gave Mary and her breasts power.
Von Kellenbach said, “Without nourishment from her breasts, [Jesus] would not be able to survive.”

In these images, Mary is a physically larger character, often with her breast exposed to the baby Jesus, looking down upon the child. In iconography like this, Von Kellenbach stated that the breast is the power to nurse and is, like the power of nature, a natural power to nurture and give life.

This embodiment of the power of breasts was different from patriarchal, phallic power (personified, for example, by an image of the Washington Monument), which is a power over nature and of controlling nature that “imposes structure on the natural world.”

Leading from this, Von Kellenbach stated that although the patriarchal Christian tradition wants to make Mary subordinate to God, since her breasts ensure God’s life as Jesus it is symbolic of nature’s and Mary’s power over God.

Surprisingly, Mary’s womb was not a symbol or source of her power, as shown through the dearth of images of Mary pregnant compared to the abundance of her breastfeeding or of her breasts.

The breast is linked to nurturing power which is connected to the power of nature. Von Kellenbach said, “The mother is the symbol of nature who provides freely; she is the power on which humanity lives.”
“Her power is sacred power. It is absolute power over life and death.”

Other images of nourishing figures in other religious traditions also had the conception of the power of breasts as well as breast milk.

One of these was the image of Isis, an ancient Egyptian goddess of nature and fertility, also seen nurturing a child, Horus, with her power coming from her breasts.

“Milk is the ultimate symbol of well being,” said Von Kellenbach, one example of this being the edict from God that the Jews would arrive in the land of “milk and honey” after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

In other images from Christianity, “milk is spiritual and physical food,” as seen in the image of St. Bernard receiving knowledge from the breast milk of Mary being sprayed upon him in a vision.

Von Kellenbach then discussed how patriarchal power took over this female power, through the Eucharist in which Jesus’ blood becomes food and it is “no longer the female body that nourishes.”

“The female breast becomes appropriated by males,” according to Von Kellenbach, as well as the life giving power of the womb when Adam becomes the ‘mother’ of Eve by having his rib be the source of her life.

The last section of the presentation focused on modern ideas about breast feeding and our culture’s sexualized image of the breast. Von Kellenbach said that breast feeding today makes people uncomfortable, referencing its prohibition in public.

She added that this is partly because of the sexualized ideal of the breast and emphasized this point with an image of a woman pushing her breasts forward, wearing a tight t-shirt with the words ‘Got Milk?” on them.

Seeing this dichotomy between the previous nurturing power of the breast the modern sexual one made an impression on attendees.

Sophomore Dorothy Fisher said, “It epitomized how breastfeeding has become taboo and totally sexualized…[the image of the modern breasts] was almost offensive because they were so blatant in their sexuality.”

Von Kellenbach proposed another reason for discomfort: “There is something about breast feeding that reminds people about their animal origins,” and as humans we try to make ourselves independent from those origins.

The presentation concluded as Von Kellenbach reconnected the power of the breasts to the power of nature and the importance of nature as a provider of food and nurturance.

She said, “our food is not to be taken for granted… our being depends on our daily bread.”

She also said to the audience, “What is your responsibility towards that material sustenance that is given to you?”

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