A First Look at The Met's “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" Exhibition

The sin of vanity has been a frequent subject of sermons and tweets by Pope Francis, who famously refuses the elaborate vestments of his predecessors and chooses plain silver jewelry over gold.

“Vanity, showing off, is an attitude that reduces spirituality to a worldly thing, which is the worst sin that could be committed in the church,” he said in 2013 after his election to the papacy. Another fave: “Vanity not only distances us from God: it makes us look ridiculous.”

But what if the sinner is the Metropolitan Museum of Art?


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It is not without reason that the museum’s curatorial staff has been extraordinarily sensitive in its handling of the latest fashion exhibition opening on May 10. “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” an orgiastic feast of designer finery inspired by Madonnas, mosaics, nuns, priests, angels, saints, and more, is the largest exhibition in the Costume Institute’s history, and potentially the most provocative, positioning lavish (and outlandish) gowns by Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Yves Saint Laurent alongside Medieval and Byzantine relics by designers unknown.


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The wrath-of-God-tempting subject alone raises so many questions that the Met pre-emptively addressed some of them at the first preview of the exhibition on Monday morning, with an assist from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York. “You may be asking, ‘What’s the church doing here?’” said Dolan, who answered that Catholic priorities – truth, goodness, and beauty – also fuel its interest in art, poetry, music, “and yes, even fashion, to thank God for the gift of beauty.” Well, then, onto the clothes!

Let me state up front that I am not a particularly religious person, nor offended by “Heavenly Bodies,” but I suspect some viewers might find it a tad sacrilegious to encounter a hall of gilded Versace dresses displayed on raised platforms like platinum apostles, or a Thierry Mugler angel gown dangling from the stone archway of a church façade. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, argues that while these objects may seem far removed from the sanctity of the church, it would be a mistake to dismiss them without looking at fashion in the context of Catholicism’s storytelling traditions. Indeed, the exhibition illuminates many central religious themes while positing that the examples seen here have a closer relationship to religious art than immediately meets the eye, for they too have narratives inspired by Catholic imagery and Christian symbolism.

All that is well and good, but you are not likely to find many worshippers who want their Sunday school lessons delivered by Dolce & Gabbana.


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“Heavenly Bodies” is a vast exhibition with so many narratives that to search for deeper meaning risks projecting holier airs upon these religion-inspired clothes than the designers probably intended. That does not, however, take away from the pleasures to be found here, once you give in to the sin of vanity and embrace the superficial. A Thierry Mugler dress trimmed with gold-feathered wings and lit as dramatically as an altarpiece seems poised to cast judgment on the viewer, while a fantastic wedding ensemble by Yves Saint Laurent from 1977, with a cape of layered silk crepe and organza ruffles shrouding the face, resembles a ghost haunting the main gallery. Some viewers will rejoice in the return of the very cross-covered Christian Lacroix jacket that Anna Wintour chose for her first cover as editor of Vogue 30 years ago – not quite the parable of the prodigal son, but it tells a story.


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The exhibition is so vast that it should be taken in small doses. Besides the displays within the Medieval and Byzantine Art Galleries and the Robert Lehman Wing of the Met’s Fifth Avenue home, there are also pieces at the Met Cloisters. And an entirely different exhibition could have been dedicated to the 40-or-so papal vestments and accessories on loan from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Sacristy, which are currently on display in the Met’s permanent Costume Institute gallery.

Ending my tour there, I encountered the red slippers of Pope John Paul II and the mantles of Benedict XIV and Benedict XV, and the exquisite cope of Benedict XV, embroidered with mountains gold. These popes were the real fashionistas, the ones who understood better than most designers the storytelling power of clothes.

“Astonishing,” said Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Valentino creative director, in face of the chasuble of Pius VII.

“The embroidery changes with the light,” said Jean Paul Gaultier. “You have to end with the vestments of the Vatican. It will make you feel humble.”

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