Interpreting breast iconography in Italian art, 1250-1600
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The motif of the uncovered female breast is ubiquitous in art of all ages and cultures. Modern analysis of breast imagery tends to be biased by the sexual significance that breasts have now. However in Italian renaissance art the exposed breast appears in many different manifestations. The purpose of this thesis is to explore several specific types of breast iconography. The first chapter will examine images of Maria lactans, and consider the religious, cultural and psychological meaning held within the image and the social changes which were to lead to its loss of popularity. Chapter Two will consider the appearance of secular images of breastfeeding, particularly in the city-states of north Italy in the early Renaissance, and examine possible sociological reasons for the political use of the depiction of breast feeding. Other associated breast iconography will also be considered. Chapter Three will focus on images of the tortured breast, particularly depictions of St. Agatha suffering the removal of her breasts during martyrdom. Both the sacred and sado-sexual elements of such images will be examined. The fourth chapter will look at images of Lucretia. It will be examined why in so many cases artists chose to depict her with her breasts exposed (in contradiction to ancient sources) and with the dagger actually pointing at or embedded in her breast. It will be argued that the breast was used in art as external symbol of the female heart. The final chapter of the thesis will focus on paintings Cleopatra. Again, there is an even more marked contradiction to ancient sources when Cleopatra is depicted dying by a snakebite to the breast. A full-circle will be achieved in the contrast of paintings of Mary suckling Christ with images of Cleopatra apparently breastfeeding a snake.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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