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SMC professors organize trip to New York City for ‘Heavenly Bodies’ art exhibit

| Monday, August 27, 2018

Saint Mary’s students will have the opportunity to travel by bus to New York City on Sept. 22 to see The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition, a display of fashion and medieval art.

The exhibition aims to examine the effects of fashion on Catholicism over time, the Metropolitan (Met) Museum’s website said. The trip is being organized by religious studies professor Margaret Gower and art professor Krista Hoefle, who said the event would be of little cost to students.

The trip was dreamed up after Gower noticed the overwhelming interest students had in the Met Gala in May. Before and after her “Christian Tradition” course started for the day, students would discuss the fashion displayed at the Gala, Gower said.

“I saw that students were excited about it, I was excited about it and there was this moment in my classes during the informal class chatter when we realized all of a sudden that these theologies and histories and practices that we’ve been discussing were alive and at work in this really enthralling arena of human life — fashion,” she said. “These ideas that usually might feel detached from social life or pop culture were at the center of it. Some people were provoked and there was some controversy and some people saw opportunities for evangelization. Into all those conversations, we had something to say.”

Students factored heavily into the decision to design a trip that was both accessible and affordable, Gower said. Students will board the bus the night of Sept. 22, then will be dropped off at The Met Cloisters, a display of medieval European art, the next morning before traveling to The Met Fifth Avenue. 

“When the Met closes, we’ll board the bus again and drive through the night to get home,” she said. “It’s a very focused trip. The cost of admission is free to students and so is the cost of transportation. Students do have to pay for their own meals but we’re really encouraging students to bring snacks.”

Tiffany Johnson Bidler, an art professor, said the Costume Institute at the Met is a long-standing institution that has one of the best costume collections in the country.

“Anything that involves human creativity is something that is considered worth collecting as a way to understand how artistic forms have changed over time in relation to cultural standards and interests,” Bidler said.

The “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition at the Met seeks to present different forms of religious artistic expression in a way that facilitates connections, Bidler said.

“What they’re interested in doing is looking at how three different types of collections work together. There’s the collection of painting and sculpture, and within that collection is costume that is influenced by Catholic imagery, and then they also have the exhibition of pieces from the Vatican as a way to show the source material that the designers are working with,” Bidler said.

The exhibition is presented as an ongoing conversation between art, religion and fashion, Gower said.

“Part of what’s so exciting about this exhibit itself is that it was designed, consciously, to represent moments in a conversation,” she said. “It’s not like all the Christian tradition speaks in one voice, and it’s not like all of fashion or Haute couture has one relationship to the Christian tradition. So it’s like we get to peek in on different moments in an ongoing conversation.”

The religious objects and themes, Bidler said, will be able to reach more people due to the accessibility of fashion.

“It helps people to understand the relevance of those older objects,” she said. “Fashion is something that is easier for people to grasp because they are engaged with fashion everyday when they wake up — you have a sense of what fashion and what fashion does from a very young age. It’s an approachable art form and in this case, it could help people gain a new appreciation or understanding of the other objects in the exhibition.”

The exhibition includes more than 50 holy pieces from the Vatican that would have otherwise never left Italy, The Met’s website said. All of the fashion on display has been influenced in some way by the Catholic imagination, Gower said.

“At the Met Cloisters is a gallery that considers Catholicism’s seven sacraments as inspiration for garments, including a wedding gown made by Cristobal Balenciaga in 1967 that he designed in conversation with ideas of and representations of the garments of Jesus on the cross,” she said.

Gower said she hopes students not only see the articles on display but also the messages those artifacts are trying to communicate.

“I want [students] to be attentive, present and thoughtful and encounter, almost witness, a conversation between Christian and Catholic theological ideas and practices and beauty and fashion,” she said. “I’d like students to critically reflect. Whose voices were present? Whose voices were absent? I have been very influenced by the movement, ‘Museums Are Not Neutral,’ which basically challenges museum-goers to say, ‘Who is behind the scenes?’ Who’s at the margins?”

The exhibition can appeal to all types of students, Bidler said, from those attending to see the Vatican objects to those who want to experience a major part of art history.

“There’s historical value in seeing the objects from the Vatican as they’re part of the Catholic imagination, the Catholic artistic tradition,” Bidler said. “The Catholic visual tradition is both important in the Church itself for believers and it’s also important in the history of art as a whole, because the Catholic Church was a patron of the arts. Students will be able to learn about that tradition but then also about how it resonates with artists in the present.”

Though students may not feel religion is relevant in contemporary art, Bidler said that’s a common misconception.

“A lot of contemporary artists and designers are working with a Catholic imagination,” Bidler said. “Andy Warhol, the inventor of pop art, was Catholic and his work was very influenced by this Catholic imagination.”

Some students may have concerns or issues with how the religious vestments were represented at the Met Gala, Gower added, but those issues should not dissuade them from attending the trip.

“I want to separate the Gala from the exhibition,” she said. “By all accounts, the exhibition is respectful and reverent and serious.”

Bidler said that students with concerns about the exhibition or about May’s Met Gala should definitely attend the trip.

“The best thing to do is go to the source and evaluate it,” she said. “Look at the exhibition as a whole and how it comes together and see if it reinforces your view or changes it.”

Gower said that although any concerns about the appropriateness of the exhibition are valid, followers of the Church should first find issue with some of the more topical scandals the Catholic Church is facing.

“The other thing I’ll say is that I think the MET Gala is not what’s urgent in the Church,” she said. “This week, there are other things to take offense to or to take to be sacrilegious or blasphemous. Sometimes there are moments when we need a perspective check and this might be one of them.”

This exhibition serves as both a conversation starter and a bridge extended from the Vatican to all those outside of it, Gower said. Students can sign up for the trip via email until Sept. 4.

“The word ‘pontiff’ has always been so important to me because it comes from the Latin word ‘pons’ for bridge and ‘facere’ which is ‘to do’ or ‘to make,’ so the role of the Pope is to be a bridge-builder,” she said. “I think that this exhibition has the potential to be a bridge-building exhibition. I feel like this is the Vatican rooting itself in its theology and its devotional life and its practices and it’s offering a bridge to other folks.”

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a junior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She writes for SMC News and is a tried and true Midwesterner.

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