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A Complex Delight

The Secularization of the Breast, 1350–1750

Margaret R. Miles (Author), Vanessa Lyon (Other)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 196 pages
ISBN: 9780520253483
January 2008
$85.00, £71.00
Looking at painting and sculpture from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries, this provocative work focuses on the symbolism of the female breast to open a dazzling interpretive view of Western European history over four centuries. Margaret R. Miles finds that while in 1350 the Virgin's bare breast represented nourishment and loving care—God's provision for the Christian—by 1750, artistic representations of the breast were either erotic or medical. The breast had lost its meaning as a religious symbol. But how did the breast, and nakedness more generally, lose the ability to represent human bodies as site and symbol of religious subjectivity and commitment? To explore this phenomenon, Miles engages in a wide-ranging investigation of the social, cultural, and religious circumstances within which a religious symbol came to be thoroughly "mastered" by erotic and medical meanings. What emerges is a nuanced understanding of the location of power in early modern Western Europe, of how the lives of women changed over this period, of how art reveals and helps to construct religious meaning, and of how modern Christianity's attitude toward bodies was shaped.

Chapter 1: The Secularization of the Breast

Chapter 2: The Virgin’s One Bare Breast
Chapter 3: Mary Magdalen’s Penitent Breast

Chapter 4: The Anatomical Breast
Chapter 5: The Pornographic Breast
Afterword: A Complex Delight

Select Bibliography
List of Illustrations
Margaret R. Miles is Emerita Professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She is author of The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought; Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture; Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West; Reading for Life: Beauty, Pluralism, and Responsibility, and Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies.
“A note of hope and a gesture toward a more erotic and mystical future.”—Church History
"[A] slender, provocative volume. . . . Miles has delivered a careful analysis that will prove essential and an enjoyable read."—Preston Yancey Transpositions
“This book by a pioneering scholar in the field adds much to our understanding of the meaning of the breast in early modern Europe.”—Diane Wolfthal Renaissance Qtly
"A Complex Delight is the work of a seasoned and mature scholar offering us a careful and nuanced study that pushes us into a new territory of reflection while providing an exciting way of looking at the subject. The work will make a vital contribution to the historical analysis of culture and religion. This book is a wonderful intellectual and visual romp that will spark the imagination and satisfy the mind's quest for fresh historical understanding."—Wilson Yates, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Art and Society, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

"Margaret Miles' interdisciplinary study of the 'concealing and revealing' of the breast in art during the Renaissance and Baroque styles weaves together relevant issues in the history of art and theology. She offers a study grounded in solid research with informed commentary and her handling of the textual and visual evidence from these cultures is objective, respectful and decorous. This book will be of considerable interest to students of the visual culture, religious imagery, and social history of Early Modern Europe."—Heidi J. Hornik, Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art History, Baylor University

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