The Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ creative but respectful
Sara Schlecht | Friday, September 28, 2018
The Catholic Church can’t manage to stay out of the news. A recent wave of sexual abuse accusations against priests has Catholics and non-Catholics alike criticizing the Church’s handling of these widespread problems. These things were at the forefront of my mind as I traveled with 33 other Saint Mary’s students and several professors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) to see this year’s Costume Institute spring show, titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Split between the Met’s Fifth Avenue location and the Cloisters uptown, “Heavenly Bodies” features the work of numerous designers who have drawn upon Catholic imagery. Juxtaposed with works that inspired them, the fashions demonstrate the pervasiveness of Catholic stories and tradition in the creations of those who have experience with the faith.
The Cloisters, composed of chapels and galleries with stained glass windows, is home to some of the Met’s Medieval European collection, making it the perfect space for this exhibition. Each individual space — aptly called a cloister — serves as both a place to display art and part of larger works of art. Stone tomb sculptures, carved archways and intricate columns are beautiful in themselves but stunning when viewed with these fashions. One gallery overlooks an outdoor cloister, letting the natural light from the windows illuminate a collection of dresses printed with Hieronymus Bosch paintings that stand among artificial trees in a section of the show called “Garden of Eden.” The most distinctive work in this gallery is a Valentino evening dress with leaves defining the neckline and seams of its bodice and a depiction of Adam and Eve embroidered on its flowing skirt.
On a lower level of the Met Fifth Avenue, far removed from the galleries that contain the Catholic-inspired fashions, a collection of storied items from the Sistine Chapel’s sacristy glimmer under spotlights. One room holds obvious displays of the Church’s opulent possessions, including a few papal tiaras, adorned with rubies, diamonds and other precious gemstones, mitres sewn with silver and gold metal thread and vestment clasps. While many of the pieces in this room are from the 19th century, some of them have been worn as recently as Benedict XVI’s papacy. A larger space contains glass cases of hand-embroidered vestments, including one designed Henri Matisse. People move slowly through these rooms, cooing over the shining stones and garments worn by former popes. Others whisper with disdain at the amount of wealth present in the form of ceremonial items, like the golden chalice of Pope Leo XIII.
In the Fifth Avenue’s Medieval and Byzantine art section and galleries, the most dramatic experience of the fashion exhibition occurs. While not entirely closed off from the rest of the museum, the temperature feels noticeably cooler, the lights are substantially dimmer and ecclesiastical music gently swells. A runway of ensembles extends forth from a choir screen. One is a gown with a plunging neckline that is somehow reminiscent of a cardinal’s traditional dress. An angelic-looking wedding gown with ornate gold embroidery and colorful bouquets covering the front and an ornate headdress adorn another mannequin. At the top of the choir screen, a celestial Madonna looks on.
Among the exhibition’s highlights are the intricate gowns of French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. One, a pattern of blue and white stained glass, includes the image of a child with its head resting on the gown’s shoulder, bringing the mannequin to life as the Madonna. Another is reminiscent of a more feminine Joan of Arc, its bodice covered in an armor of medallions in the shape of hearts and religious figures and its skirt metallic in front with a flowing beige train. These pieces create tangible reality out of ancient religious figures that can seem mythical when considering their stories.
In terms of reverence, “Heavenly Bodies” plays it pretty safe, which is to be expected of any exhibition in which the Vatican has chosen to participate. The designs, even at their most ostentatious, depict religious figures respectfully. One exception to the traditionalism comes in the form of bishops and priests’ cassocks. In a row of these black garbs, individual male figures are end points, but five female figures stand between them. While these women’s styles remain rather simple, I detected a feminist undertone that does not appear in other parts of the show. However, a label among these works includes a statement from the fashion house of A.F. Vandevorst that reads, “’There are no borders in using religious elements, as long as it is done with respect.’” This quote reiterates the respectful nature of the entire exhibition but does not effectively revoke the suggestion that women, too, might belong in cassocks.
Seeing the prodigious artistry created and inspired by the Catholic tradition and its followers would have been merely an uplifting experience if not for the scandals that currently plague the church. The gorgeous works within “Heavenly Bodies” juxtaposed with the horrible nature of the sexual abuse and coverups that continue to come to light creates an unsettling dissonance. This institution has allowed so much beauty to exist but is now struggling to maintain its credibility in doing so. With the knowledge that Catholic iconography led to something as beautiful as this exhibition, surely something within the Church must have the capacity to remedy the ugliness that continues to come to light. As students at Catholic institutions, seeing “Heavenly Bodies” could lend hope that the Church is not merely a gilded institution.