Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography

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Sabrina Higgins

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Abstract

This article provides an overview of the scholarship on the relationship between depictions of Isis and Mary that show them breastfeeding or offering their breast (representations of the lactans-type) in Egypt. In particular, it questions the notion of a deliberate cultic continuity between the two holy women based on the similarity of their iconography. The evidence demonstrates that whereas Isis lactans can be documented in the Mediterranean from 700 BCE until the fourth century CE, Maria lactans-imagery only appears uncontested in Egypt from the seventh century CE onwards. This evidence, therefore, does not warrant a generalization that there was a deliberate continuity between the cult of Isis and that of Mary. Although the similarities between the Isis and Maria lactans-imagery are undeniable, they need to be understood within their respective cultural contexts.

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