Lactatio Virginis

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In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, both within the convents, where the institutional version prevailed, and without, where the charismatic aspect was rather more present, a particular form of female teaching, which we could define as spiritual maternity, was present and active as a recognized element of sanctity. It is well known, in fact, that a nun from the convent of Santa Croce in Brescia was considered mother by Gaetano da Thiene, one of the founders of the Order of the Clerics Regular Theatines; so too, Paola Antonia Negri, first teacher of the Angelics, a female branch of the first Regular Clerics of Saint Paul (known as the Barnabites), who kept, until her imprisonment in a convent, the title of Divina Madre Maestra (Divine Mother Teacher), which she had been called due to unconditional faith in her charisma as spiritual guide.17 Not even the Jesuits were exempt from the influence of charismatics, whom they considered examples, until the authority of the Roman Church regarded such an inversion of roles as suspect and reduced the most influential mothers to silence.

Among these mothers of the soul was the controversial figure of the Bolog-nese Elena Duglioli. Known from 1506 as a married virgin and remembered later as the commissioner of a painting by Raphael depicting the ecstasy of St Cecilia, the devout woman was said to have the gift of lactatio Virginis and to have materially nursed her disciples, to the great admiration of some and decided suspicion of others.18

The role of other women who lived in Italy at the start of the sixteenth century, such as Margherita da Ravenna and Gentile da Russi, was more decentralized than that of the figures noted above, but not less important for the full inclusion of requests which were widely felt as reforms of the church from below. As in Milan and Rome, where Companies of Clerics Regular were formed that later gave birth to religious orders, so too in Ravenna a Company of Clerics Regular was formed by the son of Gentile da Russi, the devout woman who was the epitome of a natural mother and mother of the soul.19

And yet the mothers of the soul cannot be considered during this period as merely the expression of an exceptional divine grace or a recognized prophetic charisma. In the late Middle Ages spiritual maternity was recognized as a particular element of sanctity that did not acknowledge differences of gender. As Caroline Bynum has observed, not only the Virgin but also Christ nursed the disciple Bernard;20 the act of lactatio came to assume a symbolic

17 Baernstein, A convent tale; Bonora, I conflitti della Controriforma.

18 Zarri, L'altra Cecilia, pp. 83-118, now in Zarri, Le sante vive, pp. 165-96.

19 Zarri, Le sante vive, pp. 98-9. 20 Bynum Walker, Jesus as mother.

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