Presidential Scholars Theses (1990 – 2006)


Open Access Presidential Scholars Thesis

First Advisor

Charles Adelman


Mothers in art; Mother and child--Religious aspects;


Several semesters ago I participated in a class on the art and archaeology of ancient Egypt. As an art history course it, focused on the images now available from that magnificent civilization. These images conveyed not only the incredible pomp and splendor afforded state religion and ceremony, but also whispered of the sweet joy abundant in private life as well. Flipping through my textbook early on in the semester, my attention was captured by an extraordinary example encompassing both "types" of images. The subject of my fascinated gaze was a statue of a child-pharaoh, Pepy II, seated on his mother's lap (Fig. 1).

The diminutive work adheres strictly to the unbending styIistic conventions common to Egypt at the time of the statue's creation. Instead of appearing rigidly formal or coldly indoctrinated, however, this small alabaster conveys a sense of warmth and intimacy, of particuIar subjects with their own particuIar presence. This feeling is without a doubt as much the product of the skill and ethos of its artisan as it is the soft, translucent glow inherent in its material. Gorgeous as it is, the statue's beauty aIone was not what captured me; indeed, many of the other objects presented by Smith were equally wondrous.' No, it was actually the object's beauty combined with its familiarity that ensnared me. I knew I had seen it before ... but the where and when of it escaped me.

After a bit of consideration, the reason for the familiarity of the subject finally dawned. I had dealt with it only the semester before. Strangely, however, I had seen it during a course on medieval art history, and the particular subject of the image had not been Pepy II and his mother, but Christ and the Virgin Mary. Fascinated by this "discover," I decided to explore if, and/or how the image of Maria Lactans was related to that of Isis Lactans, after which Pepy II had been modeled.

During the course of my studies I have learned that Isis Lactans is not the only image to have influenced Maria Lactans. Almost every icon-creating culture in the world has at some point In time produced representations of a mother, often immortal, breast-feeding her infant or child. Indeed, untangling every visual historical thread that is tied to the latter image is practically impossible. Because of this difficulty I have focused on images of limited provenance and formal organization . The strands I will attempt to tie together were twisted in ancient Egypt, Greece and the Near East. With only a few exceptions, the examples below are of a seated female figure nursing or offering her breast to a child seated across her lap. In most cases the females are deities, and the child is their son/consort.

Date of Award



Department of Art

Presidential Scholar Designation

A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation Presidential Scholar


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Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (60 pages)

Date Digital



©1995 - M. C. Ewald





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