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The Fullness of Charity

William-Adolphe BouguereauCharity, 1878

One of a number of works depicting the same theme, Bourguereau’s Charity here presents us the nature of charity in the figure of a mother. Five infants huddle around her, and one could imagine that caring for them all at the same time is no easy task, even impossible, with each one having its own needs which requires the mother’s ‘undivided attention’—which is precisely what our mother above gives to each one.

The mother has exposed her breasts, in order to feed any child which may go hungry. One infant tries to raise itself toward the her to receive the sustenance that only a mother can give—the milk from her breast. The other infant she holds with her right arm looks up to her, wanting nothing else but the sole attention of its mother. So she lowers her eyes in order to meet the gaze of the child; but under her watchful eye, even if she looks at this child, she is still mindful of the other four infants. Another infant is sleeping soundly in her arms; thus she does not want to wake it with sudden movements, making sure that the child gets its rest, the rest that it needs as it slowly grows up. So in her arms are three children with three different needs: attention, sustenance and rest. And she manages to give each one what it seeks, without taking anything away from the others.

Yet there are two more children at her feet. The one to the right seems afraid, or probably cold. Thus it snuggles up to her mother’s skirt, using it as a blanket or protection from what it may be afraid of. The gesture of hiding in a mother’s skirt still means today having her protect you from harm. The other child, to the left, resting on two books, is absorbed in his reading. The mother had already made sure that her children not only get the sustenance and protection they require, but that they also have the materials they need in order to learn and grow also in wisdom. We still recognize this until today: one of the most important responsibilities of parents would be to educate their children, not merely to prepare them for ‘careers’ as what most nowadays narrowly see as the goal of education, but more so to help shape them and inform them with the knowledge that enables them to understand themselves and the world. It is not only the body which needs sustenance, but also our minds.

Finally, we see the young mother’s left foot on top of a jar of gold and silver coins. The jar had been toppled over, and the coins had spilled unto the ground, even to the step below it. Her coins are abundant. They spill over because her love, too, is abundant, spilling over her children. That the coins spill over, lost or spent, is no matter to the mother. The generosity with which mothers care for their children is one which does not mind how much it loses—no price is too high in order to love. For precisely, charity does not count its losses, does not attend to and keep anything to itself in order to expend itself. It is unable to contain itself to itself, like the jar that spilleth over. As an outpouring, as excess, love cannot keep itself from giving whatever what it loves needs from it and asks for. Love loves until it is exhausted, until the breast is drained of milk, until the jar runs out of coin. Like Bourguereau’s generous mother, love gives every thing it can give, even itself, no matter how much loving may cost.


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