• Bill McMahon

Heavenly Bodies and Art

The Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and Met Cloisters is revelatory on many levels. To start, the Vatican has loaned a large number of items from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy that are breathtaking for their beauty, artistry and richness of materials. In fact, there is so much gold, silver, silk, satin, and precious gems on display that, religious inspiration aside, the thought that occurred to me was that perhaps the main thing that Catholicism and Haute Couture have in common is the love of luxury. Make that worship. The subtitle for the show is “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” and the designers’ imagination on display is perhaps even richer than the Papal vestments.

Those Vatican articles are the only thing in the Met show that visitors are not allowed to photograph, which raises an interesting question. Is the Catholic Church somewhat embarrassed by its history of amassing immensely rich trappings, amid the current climate of reform, embarrassing disclosures of past misconduct, and public indignation? One doesn’t see Pope Francis wearing any of the elaborate miters, vestments or other papal accessories on display. In fact, the richest of the Vatican items on display are the Papal Tiaras, crowns that were traditionally worn at the investment of the new Pope – but the last time one was donned was back in 1963, by Pope Paul VI. Paul ceremoniously placed it on the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, dictating that it be sold and the money donated to charity. This was a new tiara, donated by the city of Milan, where Paul was Archbishop before being elected Pope, and it was not adorned with gems of any kind. There was some protest from traditionalist Catholics about the Pope abandoning the tiara, just as there would be protests about the abandonment of the Latin Mass. Such is the power of ritual and history. Encrusted with gold, silver and literally thousands of precious and semi-precious stones, the ancient tiaras are masterpieces of the jeweler’s art. They are also witness to the history of tribute and indulgences that marked the previous eras of the upper ranks of Catholicism.

Catholic groups from eleven states organized a protest outside the Met shortly after the exhibit opened, calling the display “heavily sacrilegious.” There are, admittedly, some of the fashions on display that betray an ironic, even satiric take on Catholic history and tradition. Rick Owen’s “monk” ensembles, with “peep” holes at the groin, are a conscious parody of the legend of lascivious monks, and arguably a criticism of the Church’s coverup of priestly sexual misconduct. And while some of the other designers’ work has what might be construed as a critical edge, yet there are many pieces that seem to express a devout spiritual inspiration. Several are informed by the vision of angels, saints and the cult of the Virgin Mary, particularly expressed by the wedding ensembles on display, most especially the veils and head dresses. There are even examples of haute costumes made specifically to dress statues of the Virgin, one by none other than Yves Saint Laurent. So exactly what is the Catholic connection for these designers? Many were raised in the Catholic faith, but most are no longer practicing. The majority of the designers, living or dead, are/were gay men; what is their relation to the religious tradition?

I think for most of the designers, it was the power of ritual and iconography that speaks to them most directly and informs their work, rather than the religion itself. Several of the costumes, by Thom Browne, Valentino, Madame Grès and Claire McCardell are actually informed by the more ascetic, pared back habits, cassocks and headwear worn by nuns and priests. Using mostly a restrained palette of black, brown and white, they show restrained elegance paired with innovative design and construction. They contrast dramatically with the elaborately rich, ornate and wildly colorful creations inspired by the Papal treasures, and seem to reflect the sense of ritual rather than the power of iconography.

At the Cloisters exhibit, the effect of the setting for the costumes was even more dramatic than at the Met. A 1967 Christobal Balenciaga wedding ensemble is shown with the mannequin facing the altar, in a shaft of light. The emotional effect is stunning and immediate – no matter how lapsed a Catholic you may be, it is impossible not to be moved by the sense of holiness and sacrament. Again, it feels informed by the Nun’s habits worn in Europe, the head piece spectacularly sweeping over the dress. For all its drama, the gown and headpiece are simple in design and construction, the dress made with a single seam. Devoid of ornamentation, its richness is derived from the beauty of the design and the shimmering dove-white silk.

At the Cloisters, the only items not allowed to be photographed by visitors were three dresses by Alexander McQueen, designed shortly before his suicide, and again, one wonders at the reason. McQueen was a legendary bad boy of fashion, yet the three dresses on display are awash with religious iconography. What statement was he making, or was it not a statement beyond the aesthetic?

It is a question that we are left with in all the magnificent work on display at both the Met Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters. Perhaps it’s also a question we are left with when considering the many masterpieces of the Renaissance that were commissioned by the Pope or the Vatican? What were Michelangelo’s religious views? When painting the Sistine Chapel, was he imbued with a deep religious fervor, or was this just another job for him? Certainly his love of the human body and the heroism of the Biblical stories and figures he portrays are evident, but what of his feelings of faith? Again, it’s a question we can’t answer. What we are left with, either with the Heavenly Bodies exhibit or with the Renaissance, is the absolute beauty of the work itself. And perhaps that is, at the end of the day, enough.


© 2017 Bill McMahon 

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