by Michael Iadarola

[all photos by author]

Still just in its first month of viewing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” has earned the sometimes divisive distinction of being a “blockbuster show,” which is an event that garners a lot of press attention and a massive amount of visitors. As such, Heavenly Bodies is in the same rarefied air as a recently closed Michelangelo exhibition, the posthumous Alexander McQueen retrospective of 2011, and going back much further, the three and a half week visit in 1963 of the Mona Lisa when more than a million people crowded in for a brief glimpse at the masterpiece. Andrew Bolton, the head of the Costume Institute was the lead curator for “Heavenly Bodies,” and the renown firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the exhibition. Given the pedigree of these elements, and the unique content, it is as close to a ‘can’t miss’ as the museum world gets. To view this sprawling offering, I joined throngs of people who poured into the Met on Fifth Avenue (where “the journey begins”) one weekend in mid-May to complete one leg in what has been termed a two location pilgrimage; the other being up at the Met Cloisters in northern Manhattan. Overall, press accounts report that 60,000 square feet of exhibition space throughout 25 galleries have been used to host, “conversations between religious artworks in The Met collection and fashions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” as the introductory wall text explains. It felt appropriate to be visiting on Sunday.

Before witnessing said ‘conversation’ between selections of the permanent collection and fashion from some of the world’s most storied design houses, I began at a monologue of sorts: downstairs at the ground floor level of the Anna Wintour Costume Center. There, about 50 ecclesiastical garments and accessories are on loan from the Vatican. If the main part of the show is about influence, inspiration, and even nostalgia, these official vestments were to be seen and understood as the source material. On the way down, visitors pass by a chasuble designed by Henri Matisse in 1950 during the final years of his life. It feels even more contemporary than that, perhaps anticipating with its modernist, organic forms the liberalization of Vatican II Council in the early 1960s. The accompanying text explains that the alternating colors on the vestment correspond to the liturgical calendar. One learns very quickly in this show that decorative touches are never just aesthetic, but imbued with religious meaning. For example, each color is chosen for a reason: the red of the pope’s shoes signify the blood of Christ and the martyrs. White denotes purity and divine revelation. Sociologist Andrew Greeley’s writing on “the Catholic imagination” is central to what might be imagined as the show’s thesis. Greeley suggests that physical reminders like rosary beads, holy pictures, statues, medals, stained glass and votive candles work to communicate a more profound worldview that allows us to see God’s work everywhere, even in the most ordinary or functional item. Generally when it comes to objects approved by the Vatican or the couture fashion world however, they typically take on a somewhat less mundane character.

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Upon reaching the Costume Center, one notices (or can choose not to) text indicating that photography is prohibited there. Clearly, the agreement between The Met and Vatican prioritized a less mediated, acquisitive experience for viewing these items. Many of them are on loan outside of their permanent residence for the first time ever, and the maintenance of their aura is enforced by a host of security guards getting more exercise here than anywhere else in the museum. The writers Walter Benjamin and John Berger have said that a sublime and unique work of art’s aura comes from its inability to be seen anywhere else in the world. Of course, photo and other forms of reproduction change this dynamic completely. The process has only been with us for approximately 150 years, but it has reshaped the world and how people consider and interact with the sublime. Photographing priceless art in museums can be seen as a democratization or the opening chapter of copyright infringement, depending on one’s point of view, or perhaps their asset portfolio. Press photos have been published in print and online in the service of publicity of course, but many visitors (including this one) could not seem to help themselves, and politely ‘played dumb’ when asked not to. Some might see this as a minor sin, a hoarding digital relics that are best kept in the memory and hearts of the pious. The transgressors might feel it more as a subtle assertion of personal agency in the face of institutional regulations that do not seem relevant and worthy of following. This cat and mouse game exists at any show where photography is off limits, but perhaps the tension is more palpable in these smaller sub-level galleries housing the adornments of God’s supposed representatives on Earth.

Most of the Papal regalia┬áseem to be from the 19th and early 20th century. The obvious must dawn on many who read the informational text: when you are pope, you receive a lot of gifts, particularly of the embroidered gold silk variety. Pius IX, who held the position from 1846-1878 certainly did. On view was a diamond encrusted tiara given to him by Queen Isabella, inlaid with 19,000 precious stones. Many of the chasubles are described as having been made in Verona, Italy, in a training facility to “cultivate virtue in young women.” Fifteen anonymous women had plenty of time to cultivate virtue, working together to create a dozen vestments for the pope over sixteen years. How does one value such work? Even the rarest, most significant Picasso or Matisse can be purchased for a certain price. Of course, these garments were not originally produced as commodities and their sale remains unthinkable, so basically they all exist outside the sphere of normal exchange almost entirely. What might be said to ‘exchange,’ in a sense is a holy consideration, redeemable at a much later date. But this is much more refined and less vulgar than the selling of indulgences. There would seem to be easier and much less time consuming ways to curries favor with a pope; these garments were clearly constructed out of devotion and love, paired with an incredible degree of skill. That said, I did overhear one visitor remarking to his companion that he could see where Martin Luther was coming from.

One historically significant object down in the Costume Institute is a mitre of Pius XI. It was gifted to him by Mussolini in 1929 on the signing of a treaty giving full sovereignty to Vatican City. In addition to the golden art deco flourish, it is a piece leaden with dark symbolism. A conspicuous eagle, seemingly theologically out of place on the lower left side of the Christ figure, makes sense when one remembers that the bird of prey was a common trope in Italian and German fascism of the 1920s and 30s. Its inclusion here among other Vatican pieces can be read as a forthright, perhaps penitent disclosure. Or conversely, it betrays a Catholic body that is untroubled by such a history, and a curatorial team that did not deign necessary to contextualize such a piece. Either way, the mitre appears encased in glass vitrine like the other objects of Papal flair, with nothing but small text alerting one that this was a gift of the Italian dictator. We are left with another beautiful, pointy hat, whose ominous origin will remain hidden from so many. Does history itself not intervene here if no one else will, in some way expropriating this symbol of church and genocidal state collusion such that it is now the patrimony of all humanity, to serve as a grim reminder? In any case, I managed to document it for myself when there were no guards around. Incidentally, the main individual donor to this show and listed on all the materials is the billionaire investor Stephen A. Schwarzman, who once likened President Obama’s tax policies to “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” I’m not sure if there is an irony here exactly, but a disturbing ahistorical willfulness definitely seems at play. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it, or it would seem, free to make repugnant and ludicrous analogies.
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Ascending back up to the main floor for the hope of lighter fare and on the way to the Medieval sculpture room which hosts the bulk of the show, you pass by the Byzantine Art wings where elevated mannequins evoke a kind of fashion show in the sky. I was particularly struck by the 1997 Versace collection which includes wedding ensembles and evening dresses made of metal meshes and white silks. The crosses on multiple outfits are the ones of the crusaders. They take on a different meaning in the wake of 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and the direct invocation of the crusades by George W. Bush before the war on Iraq. Themes of protection, femininity, and purity also come to mind. Gianni Versace would be tragically killed in the summer of 1997 and never see these clothes go down the runway.

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To get a closer look on the individual outfits, the viewer is forced to look up at an extremely low angle. This ‘heroic’ view might be seen as intentionally diminishing the spectator, as has been the modus operandi of propagandistic messaging since at least Leni Riefenstahl. Andrew Bolton would surely disagree, and perhaps respond that these choices are a curatorial manifestation of the Baroque tradition wherein, “splendor is seen as the symbolic assertion of divine transcendence.” The words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Swiss theologian and priest are perhaps more revealing in establishing the alibi meant to exonerate this show from the issues that trouble me. Within the main introductory wall text he is quoted saying, “we first perceive the mystery of God through beauty, not truth.” (One imagines that the poet Keats might have had a problem with counter-posing the two.) The writing of Cardinal Ratzinger (who would assume the title Pope Benedict) is also utilized in a similar and truncated fashion. Unless we look up the text itself, all the viewer would read at The Met is a simple provocation against Enlightenment thought, that, “the beauty of Christ is more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.” However, in context, his views are more nuanced:

“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.” (2002)

Certainly the beauty of what is on display elicits a response of the heart. What has been unfortunately underrated here by Bolton and others, in spite of Ratzinger’s words, is a sense of reflection, theologically and otherwise. As publicly funded institutions, museums like The Met must be places that never fail to situate works of art within their histories, not just with creative placement next to other contemporaneous objects, but with the opportunities to impart knowledge via ever evolving didactic means.

The critical reviews of shows have either tended to focus on the garishness or sacrilege of The Met’s celebrity gala, which seems to imagine that Christianity never forgot its earliest ascetic roots, or that the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi didn’t need to be reclaimed as a mission statement by the current Pope. “Heavenly Bodies” is a show not to be missed, but it also represents a missed opportunity to supplement all of the mythos of Catholicism and promotion of a few iconic personalities in the fashion world with an accessible education on the material and social conditions that brought them into being.

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