The performance artist Deborah de Robertis has defended her feminist statement of standing nude beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in France, upsetting pilgrims and outraging the shrine’s Catholic authorities.
The artist, who is best known for her nude performances at museums including the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, has been charged with “sexual exhibitionism” after she stood in the famous grotto at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, hands clasped as if in prayer, wearing nothing but a blue veil on her head on Saturday, September 1.
Bystanders seeing the artist at the shrine quickly intervened to cover her up, and the police were called. De Robertis tells artnet News that the police phoned for an ambulance and pressured her to leave with the doctors, which she refused. She says police threatened to have her committed (she has already been forced to spend a night in a psychiatric ward following another performance in Paris) but after a lengthy negotiation decided to bring her into custody. The 34-year-old is due to appear in court at Tarbes next May.
“With this gesture of nakedness, I incarnate the apparition of the Virgin with my woman’s body, living and in the flesh,” the French-Luxembourgish artist says of the artistic intention behind her performance. “Why shouldn’t it be a miracle that today a woman can decide to take the freedom to make this gesture, knowing that in some countries the same gesture could still cost her life?”
The sanctuary of Lourdes in the South of France has been a pilgrimage site for millions, many hoping to be healed, after Bernadette Soubirous claimed the Virgin Mary appeared there 18 times between February 11 and July 16 in 1858. The Catholic hierarchy was initially skeptical about the young girl’s story, but Soubirous was later declared a saint in 1933.
Previously, de Robertis carried out similar performances in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, and at the Musée d’Orsay, in front of Gustave Courbet’s famous Origin of the World and Edouard Manet’s Olympia, in an attempt to liberate these female models from their powerless position as objects of the male gaze. De Robertis calls her performance in Lourdes The Origin of Life, in reference to Courbet’s painting, and references the Gospel of Saint Luke, 11:27: “Blessed is the belly that carried you. Blessed is the sex that birthed you. Blessed is the breast that nourished you.”
“In the monotheistic religions, Mary is the female model that is most represented, the most known and therefore the most exploited,” de Robertis explains. “The figure of Mary in Lourdes is in the end just as exploited as the face of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. It is the goose that lays the golden eggs, it drives the economy of the Marian city. Like the Mona Lisa, her head can be found on mugs, t-shirts and keyrings. Like the female genitalia of the Origin of the World, which attracts tourists and fills the coffers of the Musée d’Orsay, the representation of Mary attracts pilgrims from all over the world,” she says.
“But what would happen if the power relations were reversed, if the statue of the Virgin was incarnated as a real woman to regain ownership of her body?” asks de Robertis. “What would happen if the woman whose vulva was painted by Courbet embodied herself to get out of the frame and use the institution to her advantage and not the other way around? By embodying the female models my aim is to free them from the framework in which they are frozen and thus to reverse the point of view on the historical, political and artistic level.”
The sanctuary condemned the work as an “act of exhibitionism that shocked the faithful who were present in the Grotto at the time” in a statement obtained by the French newspaper Le Figaro. Authorities apologized to the pilgrims present, especially to families with children. “We deplore such contempt for religious conscience and freedom of worship,” the statement continues, demanding “respect for the sanctity of our places of worship in accordance with the principle of religious freedom.”
Last October, de Robertis was cleared of the charge of sexual exhibitionism following her performance at the Louvre, with the court recognizing the artistic, and therefore non-sexual, intent of the action. Her trial for this most recent performance in Tarbes is due to take place on May 19 next year.
See a video of the performance on Youtube, which has been removed from the site several times for “explicit content”:
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