BY STAFF REPORTER
TT MIGHT be enough to make Banksy drop his aerosol in the gutter in surprise or cause Lucien Freud to spill paint down his smock in utter shock.
But the Vatican has said it wants to see more paintings of a semi-nude Virgin Mary breastfeeding the child Jesus.
The official newspaper of the Holy See has declared it is time to undo four centuries of disapproval of traditional representations of the Mary as an earthy, fleshy mother doting on her newborn son.
The last edition of L'Osservatore Romano ran two articles by respected art critics who said that for nearly 1,500 years the Madonna was portrayed partly clothed and openly nursing the Christ Child. One of them blamed Protestant prudes for changing the trends in religious art that led even to the covering up of the nudes in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
In a move commentators will see as an attempt to reverse the course of history the hugely influential newspaper has called for the "artistic and spiritual rehabilitation" of "loving and tender" images of Mary breastfeeding.
One article, written by Italian Church historian Lucetta Scaraffia, claimed that a vast iconography of Christian art had been "censored by the modem age" because images depicting Our Lady's naked breast for her child were deemed too "unseemly". It said that artists later depicted the nursing Mary fully clothed because the Protestant reformers were generally critical of "the carnality and unbecoming nature of many sacred images".
But Miss Scaraffia argued that later depictions had also diminished the Madonna's human side "that touches the hearts and faith of the devout".
Miss Scaraffia said that when the early Christian artists represented the Virgin breastfeeding they had sought to reveal the reality of God's incarnation.
She said that Mary nursing her child is "an image so concrete and loving" it recalls her giving herself completely to her son as he gave himself completely for others with his death and Resurrection. "Jesus was a baby llice all others," she added. "His divinity does not exclude his humanity."
A piece written by Fr Enrico dal Covolo, a professor of classic and Christian literature in Rome. said: "The Virgin Mary who nurses her son Jesus is one of the most eloquent signs that the word of God truly and undoubtedly became flesh."
The articles coincided with the release of a two-volume work documenting the variety in iconography and history of Mary. Entitled The Sword and Milk. by Tommaso Claudio Mineo, this was presented to the public at a Vatican-sponsored event last week.
Images of a semi-nude Mary can be traced back to early Christian times and were popular during the Renaissance period oldie Middle Ages. But they came to an abrupt end around the 16th or 17th century with the emergence of Calvinism and other hard-line Protestant faiths that viewed representations of sexuality as essentially sinful.
Such ideas were resisted by Rome but accepted by Catholics particularly in France, Ireland and northern Europe.
The result is that very few, if any, Catholic churches or newspapers will dare to show such imagery even today.