Deborah de Robertis, The Origin of Life, 2018.

Nude Performance Artist Arrested for Disrobing at Catholic Shrine In France

Artist Deborah de Robertis was arrested on Saturday, September 1, after she stripped down before the statue of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, the Catholic shrine in the South of France which is best known for the healing powers of its springs, and posed with just a blue veil covering her head.

Bystanders at the famous pilgrimage site intervened by trying to cover her and calling the police. Authorities detained de Robertis after threatening to commit her to a psychiatric ward. She was charged with “sexual exhibitionism” and issued a court date for May 19, 2019.

De Robertis calls her latest performance The Origin of Life, in reference to the Gustave Courbet painting The Origin of the World, 1866, at the Musée d’Orsay—where she also staged a piece exposing her genitals in 2014. She returned to the museum in 2016 for another nude performance in front of Manet’s Olympia, 1863, for which she was also arrested. At the time, she said, she was spurred by the museum’s marketing campaign in which posters with the words, “Bring your children to see naked people,” were plastered in the Paris metro system.

“In the monotheistic religions, Mary is the female model that is most represented, the most known and therefore the most exploited,” de Robertis explained to Artnet. “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."

A statement from the religious sanctuary condemns de Robertis’s piece as an “act of exhibitionism that shocked the faithful who were present in the Grotto at the time.” According to the French newspaper Le Figaro, it also deplored “such contempt for religious conscience and freedom of worship,” and demanded “respect for the sanctity of our places of worship in accordance with the principle of religious freedom.” The site became an important religious shrine for Catholics after apparitions of the Virgin Mary were reported there in 1858; millions of people visit each year.

In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, the artist said: “The response, the reaction of the institutions, has nothing to do with my performances, but with the image they wish to spread of themselves for their own public and financial interests.” 

“Through my performances I criticize the interpretation imposed by the institutions which present them. Traditionally the body of the model is objectified to serve the message of the artist. My work suggests the opposite—the viewer is subjugated by the gaze of the model.”