Some time ago I have written about the depictions of Nursing Madonna (see the post HERE), and now I would like to elaborate on this subject. As it happens, Madonna nursed not only her Child, as we sometimes may find out in the paintings that she nurses somebody else. And that somebody is in most cases a monk.
There are many miracles recorded in the Lives of Saints, and in some cases there is also a miraculous lactation. It does not mean that the saint in questions suffered from some kind of hormonal disease, and produced the milk himself; it means that he was breastfed by Virgin Mary. The most famous scene, repeatedly depicted in European art, was the Lactation of Saint Bernard.
St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was an abbot of Cistercian order, a theologist, a mystic and one of the most influential men of the twelfth century. He deeply venerated Virgin Mary and, according to the legend, one day the statue of Madonna with Child that he was praying to suddenly came alive. The Virgin let few drops of her milk fall into Bernard’s lips, reassuring him that he is allowed to call her his mother. According to another version of that legend, Virgin squeezed her breast and let the milk go into Bernard’s eye so it could cure the infection he had there.
Shooting milk looks rather spectacular, but usually the milk does not get out of the female breast like that. You really need to get closer to taste it, and in fact the easiest way is to suck a breast. It is quite interesting that such a miracle was usually granted to the male saints, and monks; it is said to have happened to Saint Augustine, Saint Dominic, Saint Cajetan, or Peter Nolasco. It is impossible to ignore the fact that it is a kind of mystic vision that seems to be quite erotic. As if somehow the religious experience was making up for the monks their sacrifices of living in chastity.
I must stress here that it is not a naughty misinterpretation by a modern viewer, but an idea rooted in the medieval sources. For example, there is a text by Gautier de Coinci, who was an early-thirteenth century Benedictine monk and a poet, which tells a story of a deacon. The deacon found it difficult to keep his chastity vow and suffered from various carnal temptations. One night Virgin Mary visited him in his sleep and helped him by letting him drink her milk. As a result, as Gautier de Coinci wrote, the deacon felt satisfied and found it easier to resist subsequent temptations.
The Milk of Virgin Mary was supposed to be helpful for the sinners. The depictions of Madonna dropping her milk on the souls in Purgatory (and of course comforting them by doing so) was especially popular in the early 16th century. One of the most famous examples is a painting by Pedro Machuca in Prado, Madrid (1517): we can see Mary squeezing one of her breasts, while the milk from the other one is pressed by Jesus (who, by the way, seems to enjoy the whole situation).
It is worth to notice that this kind of depiction most likely derives from the mythological story of Juno, whose milk created the Milky Way. It could also be juxtaposed with the personification of Benignita (goodness, generosity) from the Iconologia by Cesare Ripa (1593; illustrated since 2nd edition of 1603). It depicts one of the virtues of the rulers, so it fits to the image of Virgin Mary as well.
To make long story short: it seems that Virgin Mary gives her milk to both sinners and saints. However, the saints are privileged to meet her face-to-face (or rather face-to-breast). They enjoy her milk individually and not in a group, like the souls in Purgatory do. But on the other hand we can expect that the latter had much more fun during their lifetime, including perhaps suckling various female breasts.