Our Lady of Bethlehem

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Our Lady of Bethlehem (Spanish: la Virgen de Belén) is a Flemish-style oil painting from Puerto Rico. Specialists in 15th-century art attribute the painting to the school of the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden, or an anonymous disciple of the school.

Origin of the tradition[edit]

Milk Grotto, Bethlehem, 2014

According to the tradition, the Milk Grotto, not far from Manger Square in Bethlehem is the site where the Holy Family took refuge here during the Slaughter of the Innocents, before their flight into Egypt. While there, the Virgin Mary nursed her child. A drop of milk fell, turning the stone white.[1] The site is venerated by both Christians and Muslems.

According to Franciscan Brother Lawrence, an American who oversees the grotto and chapel for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the grotto is at least 2,000 years old and the early Christians came to pray here, he said, but the first structure was built over it around 385.[1] Known in Arabic as “Magharet el Saiyidee” (The Grotto of Our Lady),the grotto, hollowed out of limestone, has become a place of pilgrimage for couples hoping to conceive a child.

A second legend identifies this site as the location where the Three Kings visited the Holy Family and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Divine Child.[2] A tradition going back to the 7th century located at this site the burial place of the innocent victims killed by Herod the Great after the birth of Jesus.[3]

The Devotion to Our Lady of the Milk asks husbands and wives to pray together the third of the joyful mysteries of the rosary, meditating on the Nativity of the Lord.[2]

There is also a Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche y Buen Parto (Spanish for “Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery”) in St. Augustine, Florida.[4]

The tradition of milk dates back to the first centuries of Christianity. Those converting to Christianity were given a mixture of milk and honey to drink, which in the early churches of Egypt, Rome, and North Africa was solemnly blessed at the Easter and Pentecostal vigils. Milk with honey symbolized the union of the two natures in Christ. The custom of giving milk with honey to the newly baptized did not last long, but this tradition is visible in artistic representations.[citation needed]


The image is painted on a wooden canvas. The woman in the painting, the Virgin Mary, is medium sized and has a tan and venerable face, lose hair, rays around the head, and content eyes gazing upon the child in swaddling clothes. She has one of her breasts uncovered, with small drops of milk falling towards the child's lips. The child reclines in his mother's arms, reciprocating the gaze of the mother. The Virgin Mary is wearing a blue blouse (not black) and a dark red or crimson mantle. Behind her, there is a dark grove of trees that looks like a mountain; this landscape represents her escape to Egypt. The painting arrived at a Dominican convent between 1511 and 1522. It measures 37.2 cm by 65 cm.

According to tradition, during the English invasions of 1598 and Dutch invasions of 1625, the painting was hidden and later found. In 1714 it was hung in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (Cathedral of San Juan Bautista).

During the siege of Abercromby (1797), the bishop gave orders to Zengotita that daily public prayer would be held in parishes of the city. The participants, mainly women, sang songs and litanies and carried candles or torches in their hands. The painting of Our Lady of Bethlehem was carried through the city to ask God for help. Legend has it that the invading army saw men with torches. Frightened by such an imposing sight, they decided to withdraw and not attack the city. Thus, the protection of the city was attributed to Our Lady of Bethlehem, whom the town considered the "protectora de la ciudad," or "Guardian of the City." Today in the Caleta de San Juan, next to the ancient wall and facing the bay of San Juan, there is an imposing sculpture called "La Rogativa" or "The Public Petition," which commemorates this chapter in the history of Puerto Rico.

Out of his personal devotion and devotion to the people of San Juan, the Puerto Rican painter José Campeche reproduced the painting many times. Some of the reproductions of the original Our Lady of Bethlehem are in Galería Nacional del Viejo San Juan and the Museo de la Universidad de Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. Juan Alejo de Arizmendi was the first Puerto Rican bishop to call for devotion to the painting. In 1806 he granted forty days of indulgence to those who say a Hail Mary in front of image, praying to God for the purposes of the Church. The original Our Lady of Bethlehem later went to the San José Church of Old San Juan (the old St. Thomas Church of the Dominicans). It remained there until it disappeared in 1972.

Notable representations[edit]

In the catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, a pictorial representation of the Virgin Mary made in the 2nd century stands out. It is likely that this is a virgin who can breastfeed. In the catacombs there are other symbols referring to milk.

In the church of the Chilandari Monastery in Mount Athos, Greece, a "Virgin of Milk" was immortalized in a painting, in the Byzantine style of the 11th and 12th centuries, called the Panagia Galaktotrophusa.

In one of the images of the Virgin Mary (which is similar to the "Virgin of Milk" painting), in the town of Saydnaya near Damascus, there was an inscription in Latin from the 13th century: Hoc oleum ex ubere Genitris Dei Virginia Mariae emanavit in loco, qui Sardinia vocatur, ubi genitilitas est, ex imagine lignea, which means "This oil flowed from the breast of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, sculpted from wood, which happened in the place of the Gentiles called Sardinia. This image was moved from Constantinople to Saydnaya, probably in the 11th century. Even after the 14th century, they distributed oil or milk. This representation had much influence. Templars distributed the oil or milk among the pilgrims and in many countries. It is very likely that this famous shrine of Saydnaya, which was a pilgrimage place for Christians of the East and West, is the source (or one of the major sources) of the artistic theme.

Representations of the Virgin Mary in the Netherlands[edit]

Responding to the devotion and worship of the Virgin in Europe during the Middle Ages, the early Flemish painters produced numerous images of Mary. At the end of the 15th and 16th centuries, and up until the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the representations of the "Virgin of Milk" were popular in the Netherlands.

Rogier van der Weyden, the presumed creator of Our Lady of Bethlehem, was a Flemish painter of fame and prestige in the 15th century. In 1435 he left his home town of Tournai to settle in Brussels, where he was named the premier painter of the city. None of the paintings attributed to him are signed.

The interest in his art was not limited to the region of Brussels. He received orders from distant regions such as Italy, Savoy, cities along the Rhine, and Spain.

It is possible that van der Weyden's painting Our Lady of Bethlehem was taken to one of the convents of the Dominicans in Spain, and then later he took it with him on his trip to the Dominican friars who founded the first convent in Old San Juan.



(Most in Spanish)

  • Cuesta Mendoza, Antonio, Biblioteca Histórica, Vol I, 1508–1700, Imprenta “Arte y cine”, Dominican Republic 1948, p. 298-299.
  • Delgado Mercado, Osiris, "Campeche, el primer gran pintor puertorriqueño", in Voces de la cultura. Testimonios sobre personajes, cultura, instituciones y eventos históricos en Puerto Rico y el Caribe, Fundación Voz y Centro, San Juan 2006, p. 1-12.
  • Delgado Mercado, Osiris, José Campeche. El concepto invención y fuentes formativas de su arte, Ateneo Puertorriqueño, Hato Rey 1990.
  • Friedländer, Max, The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden. The Flemish Primitives, Peters, Leuven 1967.
  • Norbert Ubarri, Miguel, "La Virgen de Belén, ¿dónde está?", Claridad (10 to 16 April 2008), p. 16 y 29.
  • Rodríguez León, Mario, El obispo Juan Alejo de Arizmendi ante el proceso revolucionario y el inicio de la emancipación de América Latina y el Caribe, Editorial Amigo del Hogar, Dominican Republic 2003, p. 133.
  • Rodríguez, Jorge, "Aparecen nuevas obras de Campeche, Oller y Albizu", El Vocero (6 May 2008)
  • Trens, Manuel, Maria. Iconografía de la Virgen en el arte español, Plus-Ultra, Madrid 1946.
  • "Para tratar sobre la privación de los Altares de N.S. de Belén y Altagracia; y sobre lo acaecido en la Procesión del Viernes Santo", Actas del Cabildo Catedral, fol. 100v-103v

External links[edit]