The artist who last year disrobed in front of the Mona Lisa recently gave Catholic pilgrims the shock of their lives as she envisaged a naked Virgin Mary at Lourdes, one of France’s holiest sites of Christian worship.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes hosts around six million visitors every year and is one of the world’s most popular Catholic pilgrimage destinations, believed to have spiritual properties capable of healing the sick. Back in 1858, a miller’s daughter by the name of Bernadette Soubirous claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared at the site 18 times between February 11 and July 16. Although the Roman Catholic Church was initially skeptical of the claim, it later installed The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes at the site and declared Soubirous a saint in 1933.
De Robertis’s intervention at the site comes at the height of tourist season in Lourdes. Footage shows the nude performance artist walking toward the sanctuary before briefly pausing with hands pressed together in prayer. Quickly, a tourist attempts to gently cover De Robertis’ breasts with the artist’s blue headdress before security guards rush in to apprehend the denuded woman.
Quoted in the French newspaper Le Figaro, the sanctuary condemned De Robertis’ performance as an “act of exhibitionism that shocked the faithful who were present in the Grotto at the time.” Church authorities specifically wanted to apologize to pilgrims with children, saying, “We deplore such contempt for religious conscience and freedom of worship … respect for the sanctity of our places of worship [is] in accordance with the principle of religious freedom.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, the artist has questioned Christianity’s exploitation of female figures like the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, who are often portrayed on opposite sides of the stereotypical spectrum of female chasteness: virgin or whore. Through her intervention, De Robertis hopes to combine both Mary’s into one image that can better envisage a fuller experience of womanhood.
“The figure of Mary at Lourdes is almost as exploited as the face of Mona Lisa at the Louvre,” explains De Robertis. “In Lourdes, the Virgin is adulated but also used as the goose with the golden eggs. She is the economic pillar of the city. Like Mona Lisa, she is found on mugs, T-shirts, and keychains. Like the female anatomy of ‘The Origin of the World,’ which attracts tourists who fill the coffers of the Musée d’Orsay, the representation of Mary attracts pilgrims from all over the world.”
In her reference to the Mona Lisa, De Robertis is actually gesturing toward her September 2017 performance (the artist’s second) in front of the Louvre’s famous painting. A month later, she was acquitted of sexual exhibitionism charges for that nude performance in front of “La Jaconde” in which she shouted in French, “My pussy! My copyright!”
As with that performance, the artist’s nudity at Lourdes desires to reverse the power relations of the male gaze by asking what audiences reactions are to a real woman’s nude body when juxtaposed with its painterly or religious interpretation. In other words, De Robertis desires to emancipate woman’s bodies from an art history that often omits women’s perspective from socio-political and economic orders.
Yet the performance at Lourdes is more closely associated with De Robertis’s most infamous performance in 2014, when she recreated Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World” in front of the 1866 painting housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Although acquitted for that action as well, she could have faced fines of €2,000 ($2,130). Accordingly, De Robertis has entitled her intervention at Lourdes, “L’Origine de la Vie” (The Origin of Life), which also references the following passage from the Gospel of Luke:
As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”
He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
As a response to the above Bible passage, De Robertis offers her own interpretation:
Magnifique le ventre qui t’a porté .
Magnifique le sexe qui t’a enfanté.
Magnifique le sein qui t’a allaité.
Beautiful the belly that bore you.
Beautiful the sex that birthed you.
Beautiful the breast that fed you.