Bread and milk – 3 August 2020
This very well known painting shows a maid-of-all works preparing food in a kitchen. The maid stands at a table by a window pouring milk into a dish. On the table and in the basket are various kinds of bread. She is possibly making bread (and butter) pudding. The woman herself is unknown and unknowable. Her enigmatic face is part lit. Is she content, concentrating, wistful? What is in her mind?
This picture is called “Milkmaid” (1657-58), and is by Johannes Vermeer. Even in the version here we can see the mastery of Vermeer, such that different textures of bread and cloth, basketry and skin, are depicted with excellence. Depicting kitchen maids and milkmaids was a well known genre at this time. The women depicted were understood (by men and male artists) to be sexually available and lax in their habits. Pictures commonly contained symbols of a woman’s sexual arousal, such as the footwarmer seen here. In this wonderful painting, Vermeer acknowledges the tradition, but lifts the subject to a whole other level. She is not lazy or seated, warming her feet, thinking about a sexual partner. Rather, she stands, and with great care and dignity prepares a delicious meal. She is sturdy and hardworking, diligent in all that she is doing. The most important thing for her is to see people fed.
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
“God bless this bread
And God preserve
The breadwinner”, I murmur
Making the sign
Of the cross in the dough
Though I don’t believe
Any more in a personal god.
Yet still I say this prayer—
Say, twice a week
When I bake bread
In the way I was taught
By my grandmother long ago.
She learned the art
Of baking bread and this ritual
Prayer as a slip of a girl
From the lips of her Irish mother.
I see her there, my grandmother
Still young in her flowered dress,
sleeves rolled, she bustles in
And rakes the fire, puts on
More coal to heat the oven
Until it is just right.
Breadmaking then was an arcane art
Involving dampers, rods
Pulled in and out
Like organ stops. She played
Whole symphonies upon that
Kitchen range, while nowadays
I use dried packaged yeast
And turn the gas to number eight.
But yet I do perform, indeed,
Could not omit, this magic rite,
This ritual prayer of invocation
And every time there comes to mind
A winding line going back in time
Of mothers and their dark-haired daughters,
Beautiful soft-voiced Irish women
Solemnly blessing the sacred bread.
Pete Crowther, God bless this bread