The Sacred and the Feminine: Image, Music, Text, Space.

Inside-out - sculpting sacred space in Bernini and Bourgeois

Victoria Turvey Sauron, (University of Leeds)


In Louise Bourgeois’ Spider, Mieke Bal presented an analysis of Louise Bourgeois’ bronze sculpture Homage to Bernini in terms of its relationship with several of Bernini’s marble sculptures including the famous Baroque group of St. Teresa in Ecstasy. I would like to both critique and develop Bal’s treatment of these sculptors, looking in particular at her characterisation of Bourgeois’ piece: “this work turns Bernini’s painterly surfaces inside-out. ” (p. 100)

This paper will examine the transgression of surface and substance in both sculptures, evaluating the notion of inside-out in art history. On one level, travelling ‘inside’ the Teresa must lead to an engagement with the ecstatic experience of the mystics – an experience almost always visualised (by mystics and artists alike) as an ‘interior’ and inexpressible state, revealed only through the movements and contortions of the mystic’s body. Paradoxically, the ecstatic experience can also be characterised in terms of abandonment, of the spirit departing the body (hence ecstasy from ex-stasis). To what extent therefore can we say that either sculpture approaches a visual ‘truth’ of female sacred experience, if indeed it is possible or desirable to attempt such a representation in sculptural form?

The nature of sculpture itself is further put into question by the very term ‘inside-out’, which also gives rise to a specifically formal questioning of the meaning of surface and interior in this form of visual art. ‘Inside-out’ evokes then transgresses a physical, bodily interaction with the art object in terms of its accessibility to light and touch, and invites the viewer to conceptualise what is hidden beneath the surface or ‘in the fold’.

This physical act of turning inside-out is also a violation, a radical penetration of the body which results in its transformation and annihilation. While this is a model of religious ecstasy, it also invites a psychoanalytical reading which would examine the consequences of the formal transgression in semiotic terms.

Louise Bourgeois titled her sculpture, ‘Homage to Bernini’, and the paper will conclude by considering the significance of this characterisation in the light of this discussion, and how it calls into question conventional models of influence and response.






AHRB School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies University of Leeds