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The Inspiring Story Behind the “Nasty” Paintings of a Woman Breastfeeding an Old Man

It looks wrong but the story’s actually heartbreaking.

  • The paintings depicted the story of a daughter who fed her father, who was sentenced to die of hunger in prison.
  • She was eventually caught, but her story softened the heart of his captors and they released him from jail.
  • Many European artists used the story as inspiration for their paintings.

In under normal circumstances, a father suckling on his daughter’s chest would definitely cause uproar because it is all sorts of wrong. But in these European paintings, the image actually gained love and admiration – because the daughter was breastfeeding her father who was sentenced to starve to death in prison.

These paintings were based on the story called Roman Charity. It’s about a daughter named Pero and her father, Cimon. He was imprisoned and sentenced to die of hunger.

A painting from Peter Paul Rubens

According to the story, Pero pleaded for the government to allow her to visit her father until his death. They granted her wish but she couldn’t bring anything edible with her. So she was checked by the prison officers every time she goes to visit her father.

A painting from Rembrandt Peale

What the guards didn’t know was that Pero was prolonging her father’s life by breastfeeding him. The guards got suspicious when the old man stayed alive days after he was sentenced.

A painting from Pieter van Mol

They eventually caught Pero breastfeeding him and a case was made against her. It somehow softened the heart of the government and eventually they released the old man.

It was said that a similar story actually goes way back to the time of Roman historian Valerius Maximus. The story was later retold by Pliny the Elder, who lived from AD 23-79, though that there were more incestuous overtones in the Baroque and Renaissance depictions.

Many European artists from the 17th and 18th century have depicted the story in their paintings. These painters include Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Hans Sebald Beham, and Rembrandt Peale.

The story was also immortalized on a statue atop the annex of the Belfry of Ghent in Antwerp, Belgium.

It goes way back to 1741 and was called “mammeloker,” which means breast sucker in Dutch. The building was once said to be the entrance to a city jail.


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