In the Belgian city of Ghent an interesting construction process took place during the 18th century. Several buildings collapsed, but new ones were also built. Among them stands out the Jailer's House, located precisely at the foot of the Belfort, the municipal bell tower that warned citizens of dangers. And attached to the Cloth Market, one of the many commercial spaces that this prosperous city enjoyed.
This building was specifically designed by the local architect David’t Kindt in the year 1741, in a distinctly Rococo style. An artistic current in which any building, regardless of its use, had to have an important ornamental part. Something that is also manifested in this House of the Jailer, which has on its facade, in the upper part, a pediment of sinuous curved shapes, where an attractive relief is included.
That relief is somehow allusive to the job of the jailer. This is a scene popularly known as Roman Caritas, in which a young woman breastfeeds an old man. A subject that has been treated by great painters in history such as Rubens, Caravaggio or Murillo. And it has even inspired literary passages, such as one that appears in the work The Grapes of Wrath by the 20th-century American writer John Steinbeck.
Thatscene takes us to a Roman legend recorded by the writer Valerius Maximus in the first century. According to that story, Cimon was an old man who was locked up and he was given neither food nor drink. Instead, he could be visited. But logically those visits could not give him any food.
So his daughter, with her little grandson, came to her cell every day. And she took advantage of her breast milk, to also feed her father. Everyone was surprised that old Cimon didn't die, until the guards discovered the secret. After that, they told the judge, who incredulously wanted to see it with his own eyes, something that shocked and moved him. That's why he set Cimon free. All this history has been used by art as a metaphor for parental and filial love, hence its name Caritas Romana.
However, in Flanders it is known as Mammelokker, which comes from the union of the Flemish words breast and suckle. But not only did they change the name, they also gave it a more mystical setting, since in this case the young woman had not been a mother, but rather she was a virgin.
Anyway, this delicate relief, in which we see the image, which undoubtedly reminds us of the Virgins of Milk common in Spanish, Italian or Dutch art. But in this case the child is an old man and the background of the scene is the bars of a prison.