“Feministing” Bernini: What Italian Art Taught Me – The Feminist Wire

“Feministing” Bernini: What Italian Art Taught Me

By Keri Day

How might art both reflect complex social realities and inspire social realities to be more radically inclusive and complimentary of human flourishing?

This quintessential feminist question emerged for me when I took a trip to Rome, Italy, a couple of weeks ago.  Upon my arrival to Rome, I was immediately struck by the stunning and dramatic architecture that is a hallmark of the city’s unique aesthetics.  Rome is popularly termed the “Eternal City” for its awe-inspiring architecture, and its Prada- and Gucci-dressed women strolling down the streets as if they are being featured on “the catwalk.” However, Rome is presently experiencing a looming debt crisis as the third largest economy in the European Union that complicates the cultural mood in this city.  Italy struggles to maintain financial stability as it manages its growing debt—a situation very similar to the present economic duress in Greece. While I visited, it seemed that wherever I went, there was constant discussion among diplomats, business people and the intelligentsia about Italy’s economic future.  While Rome’s uncertain future rightly remains critically important to its residents (as the rest of the world), the locals certainly find hope in their historical past.  I was also drawn to Rome’s past—particularly that depicted and represented in the city’s diverse range of art.

While Michelangelo is the most well known Tuscan artist the world admires, Gian Lorenzo Bernini is also a popular Italian artist that made a deep impression upon me, causing me to reflect upon the ways in which art both reflects and shapes social reality.  Born in Naples in 1598, Bernini learned the basics of his artistic craft in his father’s workshop.  In his early twenties, Bernini enjoyed numerous artistic privileges with the Roman elite, particularly enjoying the patronage of the Catholic Church for his many sculptures and paintings.  In 1623, Pope Maffeo Barberini (known as Pope Urban VIII), Bernini’s greater admirer and protector, called upon Bernini to supervise the work of numerous artists and also requested sculpting and painting works that would establish Bernini as one of Italy’s premier artists.  While Bernini was commissioned by Pope (Urban VIII) Barberini to execute a number of paintings for the Catholic Church to solidify its message of Christian Universalism, two particular sculptures fostered critical reflections for me.  I was inspired by Bernini’s work to consider ways in which art reflects the ambiguities and dangerous complexities of life and how it might inspire us to be better human beings despite the exclusion and violence that are supported by secular and religious institutions.

At the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I came across two sculptures that arrested my attention.  In the first sculpture, Pluto and Proserpina, Bernini interprets the Greek mythological story of Proserpina being seized and taken to the underworld by Pluto—“rape” thus archaically defined as “kidnapping.” Pushing against Pluto’s face, Proserpina’s hand creases his skin.  His fingers sink into the flesh of his victim. Proserpina’s lips are slightly opened, as if she were screaming and begging for help. Upon closer examination, one would notice the delicately crafted marble tears that look as though they are dripping down her face.

Pluto and Proserpina by Bernini

Inspired by Ovid’s Greek tragedy Metamorphoses, Bernini’s second sculpture Apollo and Daphnedepicts Apollo (being struck with the golden arrow of love) pleading with Daphne to fulfill his sexual desire. Daphne begins to flee. Even though she resists him by running, Apollo becomes more captivated by her beauty. Apollo grows impatient and soon, sped by Eros, gains on her. With slower speed and failing strength, Daphne cries out to her father just as Apollo captures her. Daphne, overcome with the violence of rape, asks to be transformed into a tree.  Not a moment later, Daphne’s skin turns to bark, her hair leaves, her arms branches, her feet roots, and her face a treetop.  After the transformation, Apollo still embraces the tree. He cuts off some of her branches and leaves to make a wreath, proclaiming the tree sacred.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini

These two sculptures unsettled me.

In fact, these two works unsettled my feminist sensibilities in the worst way.  For certain, they depict the troubling and disturbing realities of women historically and even contemporarily.  These sculptures disclose the movement, the flight, the chase, the cry and the screams of women who were considered propertied beings and would rather be trees or inanimate objects than women as they encounter violence and rage within a patriarchal culture.  Most jarring, the women in these sculptures were being accosted by Divine Beings, showing the complexity of theological and religious ideologies and the ways in which they, in part, perform violence upon marginalized bodies.

While I am certainly not an art critic and certainly do not see Bernini’s intent as championing women’s rights as he was a part of the Roman imperial establishment that objectified women, there is a certain complexity for me associated with these two sculpted works.  Bernini gives artistic voice, although perhaps unintentionally, to the social realities of women who have been terrorized simply for being women throughout history.  This is a necessary cultural move within art, which exposes such injustices.  However, this is not his direct intention.  Bernini does not seek to offer cultural and social critique of the institutions of which he was a part in ancient Rome through his art.  Rather, his ambitions were more about breaking the technical limitations of art itself during the seventeenth century Italian Renaissance period.  However, I want to move beyond Bernini’s more technical artistic ambitions by providing a feminist social critique of these sculptures.

These two sculptures crystallized for me the utter violence that women and even other minoritized groups such as ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons, religious minorities and other marginalized persons continue to endure today.   For instance, when turning to human trafficking, little girls and young women continue to experience deprivation and sexualized violence.  In fact, Atlanta is now the primary hub for the commercial sexual exploitation of young girls worldwide.  Yet, legal and religious systems around the world still support the criminalization of these young girls, labeling them “prostitutes” instead of what they truly are: commercially exploited sex workers.  Within religious traditions, women continue to be disenfranchised, including being denied ordination such as has been seen in the Catholic Church and many other religious institutions.  Moreover, LGBTQ persons are denied basic civil rights to guarantee bodily and legal protections for themselves and their families.  And these forms of disenfranchisement are fueled and exacerbated by religious ideology that would rather preach hate and violence than love, respect and tolerance.

As the Greek gods in the sculptures inflicted such violence upon the bodies of vulnerable women, so the constructed “Gods” of religious institutions around the world continue to encourage the mental and physical violence of those who are vulnerable, alienated and socially ostracized.  As a religious scholar, I constantly lament the ways in which religious violence facilitates and exacerbates the exclusion of “different people” within our society.  And similar to Proserpina and Daphne, many women, poor people, disabled persons, LGBTQ persons, and other ostracized people would rather be something or someone else than who they really are.  And this is the greatest tragedy – the tragedy that many vulnerable people’s cry is not for a system to honor their lives and bodies but simply to disappear.  I am reminded of the many LGBTQ youth who embody this tragedy and commit suicide, having lost belief that a system, even a religious system, can ever be nonviolent and loving of who they are.

The ultimate feminist act for me as I observed these sculptures was to envision a feminist artistic conceptual space that can shape our moral imagination on how we might relate to the sacred lives and bodies of marginalized people: ensuring safety, justice and freedom, which is also a democratic prayer into which America must live.  I seek to support a conceptual space that can help liberate the Daphnes and Proserpinas of our society from their existential cries and longings, empowering them to demand that their personhoods be honored rather than acquiescing to violent systems that exclude and exploit them.  While Bernini certainly did not anticipate my type of reflection on his sculptures as he was more concerned not only with exploding the technical limits of art itself but also with how his art supported the Catholic message of Christian universalism, I am reminded that art not only reflects social reality but also empowers reflection on what social reality might be if we are open and willing to embrace a politics of hope.

For certain, a politics of hope is currently being played out, as groups of Roman Catholic women are demanding that their rights to fulfill their call to the priesthood be acknowledged and actualized.  This politics of hope was recently displayed when the Vatican opened its mind and heart to same gender loving couples, which was a distinct break with the Pope’s recent dangerous silence in the face of Uganda’s “kill the gays bill,” a bill that threatens the death penalty or prison terms for gay persons in that country.  It is this type of moral imagination that a feminist liberative conceptual space can inspire.  It can inspire a politics of hope.  A moral imagination to re-conceptualize what is possible when people do not fearfully and dogmatically hold to their presuppositions and dangerous “Gods” that their traditions have constructed and erected but are open to the stories, cries, and longings of others that they may not understand but seek to understand better.

Art matters as one searches for a more liberating feminist politics of full inclusion and human flourishing.  This is what I walked away with after observing Bernini’s unsettling sculptures, which are embodiments of the grotesque, being the beautiful and dark (violent) human experiences that both oppress and free. And a feminist critical lens to art can be cultivated in celebration of diversity and difference.  Art can indeed open us up to new vistas and horizons, encouraging us to reconsider ideologies, beliefs and institutions that exclude and inspiring us to rethink ways to be better human beings in light of the violence and rage that continue to persist.  Art can prompt and initiate critical reflection within societies on the worlds we aspire to build, inaugurating a politics of hope.

When “feministing” Bernini, a politics of hope emerged for me.  And this lesson has been priceless.


Courtesy of Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora: An Interdisciplinary Conference at Yale University 2008

Keri Day is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. She received her B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Economics. She earned an M.A. in Religion and Ethics from Yale University Divinity School and received her Ph.D. in Religion from Vanderbilt University (with a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies). Her works sits at the intersections of religion, feminist studies, critical social theory, and poverty.