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July 3, 2019

The Milk of the Virgin Mary in Constantinople

Milk Grotto in Bethlehem

By John Sanidopoulos

The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus dates back to the second century, where it is depicted in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. It is an image of both the reality of the incarnation as well as the nurturing nature of the Mother of God. The ancient Egyptians likewise depicted the goddess Isis on a throne with her divine son Horus being breastfed, as can be seen in a statuette in the Louvre of Paris. It is an image of a newborn God in his most vulnerable moment, dependent on the nourishment of his mother.

In 439 Aelia Athenais-Eudocia, the sister-in-law of Empress Pulcheria, had traveled to Jerusalem and sent back to Constantinople at Pulcheria's request several objects related to the Virgin Mary, including her breast milk, her spindle, and the swaddling clothes of the infant Christ child. Originally these relics were treasured in the Hodegon Monastery of Constantinople. From there the relic of the milk of the Virgin Mary probably traveled over the centuries to the Chalkoprateia Monastery, the Prodromos Monastery, and Hagia Sophia, since it is recorded in each at various times. The hair and milk of the Virgin Mary are also listed among the relics exported to the West between 1204 and 1261.

When one reads that Constantinople possessed milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary, it immediately sparks our skepticism that such a wild claim cannot be true. Where could Athenais-Eudocia possibly come up with such a relic? Are we to believe that the Virgin Mary preserved her own milk and it was kept intact for many centuries? If it is taken literally and at face value, then the skepticism is warranted, however there is probably another explanation for it.

When a pilgrim travels to Bethlehem today, they will come across what is known as the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. The current Catholic chapel was built in 1872 on the site of a former Byzantine church from around the fifth century, of which only part of the mosaic floor remains. This dates perfectly to the time when Athenais-Eudocia was in the Holy Land gathering relics. According to an old Armenian tradition this is the place where Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child hid before they fled to Egypt. When the Virgin Mary nursed her Child, her milk dropped on the rocks which turned milky white. This milky white portion of the rock was known as the Milk of the Virgin Mary. By scraping some of this milk and distributing it, one could say they were in possession of the Milk of the Virgin Mary. Even today many women scratch the walls of the cave in order to procure some of the beneficial white dust which they drink with milk in order to help with their fertility or lactation problems. This therefore seems to be the origin of the relic.

With this we will conclude with a poem written by Frances Garrett Connell in her book Between the Shadow and the Soul: Random Poems, titled "Hagia Sophia's Mother's Milk":