Three days before the opening of the Met Costume Institute’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Museum held its annual gala. Those who couldn’t afford the $30,000 ticket fee could watch behind a velvet rope as guests adorned in religiously inspired couture wafted over a red carpet leading into the museum. Rihanna led the way with a pearl encrusted, thigh and cleavage-exposing take-off on the Papal robes. Katy Perry, in a gold mini-dress and knee high gold boots, stopped to kneel on the steps, careful not to damage her giant white angel wings. There were other riffs on the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, Holy Warriors, and even Jesus Himself. In the press the next day, breathless praise from the style mongers mingled with charges of sacrilege from conservative commentators.
It seemed a fitting prelude to a blockbuster exhibition that exuberantly and indiscriminately mixes the sacred and the profane. In recent years, artists have retreated from the superficial appropriation of other cultures. Fashion designers, by contrast, remain unrepentant thieves. Issues of context, symbolic significance, and historical use are swept aside as the world’s cultures are mined for the creation of visually stunning but intellectually empty celebrations of gilded taste.
Heavenly Bodies mixes actual ecclesiastical garments with clothing and accessories by leading couturiers who have been inspired by the symbols, narratives, and costumes and objects of Catholicism. Press reports have made much of curator Andrew Bolton’s remarkable success in convincing Church authorities to lend priceless artifacts from the Vatican Museum. In the Anna Wintour Costume Center in the Fifth Avenue Met, these vestments and ritual objects are presented in vitrines with descriptions of their materials and provenance.
On occasion these histories give pause, as when a label reveals that a spectacular mitre (headdress) was presented to Pope Pius XI by Benito Mussolini, or that an opulent gold embroidered chasuble for the same Pope was created by the Poor Clares, an order of nuns dedicated to poverty. The unapologetic display of wealth and power embedded in these garments are reminders, as a wall label argues, that the Catholic Church has always employed beauty and pomp to draw the faithful into an appreciation of the glory of God.
One could imagine an exhibition of ecclesiastical robes that explored their intricate iconography, place in Catholic liturgy, and social history. That is not this show. (The two volume catalog is another matter, with formidable essays about the theological and liturgical underpinnings of the works on display. However, at $65, it is not likely to be a ready reference for the casual viewer.)
In the exhibition, the Vatican lendings are the foil for the even gaudier and visually outrageous bodily adornments by designers who playfully reference such Catholic tropes as crosses, cowls, halos, and angel wings. Opulent gowns and accessories adorn mannequins interspersed among the statuary, architectural fragments, and ritual objects in the museum’s Byzantine and Medieval collections. Most of the represented designers – they include Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, the House of Chanel, Alexander McQueen as well as Gianni and Donatella Versace, whose company is a sponsor of the show – hail from Catholic backgrounds. Their creations are clearly indebted to the pageantry and ritual that has shaped what curator Bolton refers to as their “Catholic imaginations.”
In the Met’s Fifth Avenue galleries, the effect is not so much to elevate the costumes spiritually as to yank the surrounding museum artifacts back into the realm of material culture. One looks with new eyes on the surrounding jeweled reliquaries, sensuously draped Madonnas, and Biblically themed tapestries, seeing in them other possibilities for sartorial appropriation.
At the Cloisters, which has been fully taken over by the show, this effect is lessened. The site’s reconstructed chapels, cloisters, and sepulchers hold their own against the costumes, which here feel more like interventions than interlopers. In fact, the installations are often breathtaking.
A recumbent mannequin dressed in a John Galliano ensemble that features a crystal headdress, a knight inspired sheath of armor and a flowing black gown lies on a plinth among other tombs in the Gothic Chapel like a sleeping beauty. A pair of dark blue ensembles from the house of Valentino, one dotted with stars borrowed from the Black Madonna and the other with arches from the Coliseum, have been placed overhead beneath the skylight of the Saint-Guilhem Cloister Gallery, assuming the aspects of angels ascending to heaven. The theatricality of the settings and the theatricality of the costumes mesh to create a beguiling fantasy world.
Nevertheless, the overriding premise of the show remains troubling. Heavenly Bodies presents Catholicism as eye candy. This is not really what Andrew Greeley had in mind when he theorized about the Catholic Imagination in a slim volume published in 2000. I discovered this book when I was working on a book about the Catholic roots of the American culture war, and found it a lucid and enlightening rethinking of the cultural impact of a religious sensibility rooted in metaphor and sensate experience.
For his part, Bolton opens the show with a quote from Greeley: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” But while the costumes in the exhibition may refer to these elements of what Greeley refers to as “Catholic poetry,” they are hardly likely to draw viewers into a deeper engagement with the mysteries of faith.
It is telling that the Met’s museum store is advertising a specially commissioned line of cosmetics with the names LUST: Gloss Aliengelic and MOTHERSHIP IV: Decadence Eyeshadow, launching alongside “Heavenly Bodies.” Sin, evil, and human imperfection, no less than purity and sanctification, are simply grist for a Catholic-themed masquerade. In Heavenly Bodies, holiness gets lip service but insouciant irony wins the day.