This essay investigates Benedetto Caliari's Nativity of the Virgin (1576) with its provocative and unorthodox depiction of a bare-breasted wet-nurse in the context of both Protestant and Catholic criticism of “indecent” religious imagery. Reformers on both sides drew a connection between the Virgin Mary's ostentatious display of her lactating breasts and her presumed, derided, or hoped-for miracle-working capacities or intercessory powers. In post-Tridentine Venice, several artists, including Tintoretto and Veronese, all of whom were connected to the Scuola de’ Mercanti that commissioned Caliari's painting, employed religious breastfeeding imagery in a wide array of iconographies in order to express dissent with the Counter-Reformation church's emphasis on orthodoxy. In contrast to writers, artists were able to claim a certain degree of nonconformity and freedom from prosecution. In light of Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia, it is argued that religious lactation imagery after Trent produced irony, parody, doubt, and dissent.

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