The marketing for Heavenly Bodies, the blockbuster show now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would have you believe it centers on a certain male opulence. The aesthetic relationship between Catholic clerics and secular fashion designers certainly dominated the splashy Met Gala that celebrated the exhibition’s opening in May; you may recall various A-list celebrities bedecked in jewels, halos, and miters. It is a hushed surprise, then, to find that the exhibition opens with a sly tribute to the hidden women of both the liturgical arts and the fashion world.
At the entrance to the Anna Wintour Costume Center, before encountering the luxurious items on loan from the Vatican, visitors are presented with a modest liturgical vestment. This green and gold chasuble was designed by Henri Matisse in 1950 for his Vence Chapel project, but the accompanying plaque does not focus on the famed artist. Rather, it discusses the women who are credited with executing his design: the Dominican nuns at the Atelier d’Arts Appliqués in Cannes. They are compared with the artisans who carry out the sewing and needlework for the major fashion houses, known as les petites mains (“the little hands”). By crediting both (mainly male) designers and (mainly female) technicians, the curators question that division of labor while suggesting that the fashion world shares structural similarities with the ecclesial hierarchy it so often parodies.
For this show the costume center, located in the Met’s basement, has been stripped bare—a cryptlike effect complemented by recorded chant. A relatively spare, spacious display allows museumgoers to examine the garments up close, as their craftsmanship requires. One of the most stunning pieces is a chasuble presented by the Franciscan friars to Pope Pius XI in 1926 in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the death of St. Francis. It is covered in scenes from the saint’s life, embroidered meticulously in gold by the Poor Clares of Mazamet, France. Similarly impressive needlework can be seen on a cope given to Benedict XV in 1918 by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who depicted an elaborate Lamb of God. This is a surprising and fresh homage to anonymous, collective women’s art.
Another unexpected feature of the exhibition is the underappreciated art of creating clothing for statues. The main hall includes two sumptuous ensembles made for statues of the Virgin Mary. One, from Paris, is a dress and mantle of gold silk brocade along with an intricate tiara of gold, crystals, and pearls. The other, from Palagianello, Italy, is a vestment of blue silk with gold trimming. The former was created in the 1980s by the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent while the latter (pictured at the top of this article) is based on a 1950 design by the Benedictine nuns of Lecce—so there is a kind of curatorial egalitarianism in their pairing.
Unfortunately, the show does not always explore its subject with subtlety and respect, and parts of it are little more than attempts to poke fun at religious ritual. This much is clear from the curators’ explicit choice to emulate the “ecclesiastical fashion show” scene from Federico Fellini’s satirical film Roma (1972), organizing the exhibition according to exaggerated Catholic stock characters. The most emblematic of these is a lavish, jewel-encrusted “papal” ensemble by John Galliano for Dior’s fall 2000 collection, similar to the one he designed for Rihanna to wear at the Met Gala this year. The ensemble’s exaggerated hips and accessorized thurible certainly achieve the “carnivalesque” aesthetic the curators say they were going for, but the overall effect is gimmicky.
More thought-provoking is the part of the exhibition housed in the Met’s galleries of Byzantine art, which includes a series of mosaic-inspired dresses from Dolce & Gabbana’s fall 2013 line. The collection’s Eastern influences are more likely to remind visitors of Orthodox aesthetics than Catholic ones, but they are inspired by a period in Italian history that predates such distinctions. Copies of Byzantine pendants from Coco Chanel’s personal collection and a bejeweled cross by Christian Lacroix further expand the concept of the Catholic imagination beyond strictly Western visual references. Regrettably, that expansion stops short of exploring Catholic aesthetics outside of Europe and North America, other than one Galliano dress inspired by Peru’s Cuzco School.
The show only realizes its full potential at the Cloisters, the Met’s annex dedicated to medieval art. Any Catholic is bound to have a fraught relationship with the Cloisters—it is simultaneously an exaltation of Catholic visual culture and a tragic plundering of Catholic churches—but this exhibition works very well in that space. Here, the Catholic imagination is not merely a loose inspiration for the clothes on display but ingrained in the architecture and sensibility of the show. The result is celebratory without devolving into caricature.
The highlight is the beautiful use of two Romanesque chapels to present sacramental garments. In the Langon chapel, a wedding dress by Marc Bohan for Dior faces a 13th-century Catalan altar while Ave Maria plays softly in the background. A wedding dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga is positioned similarly in the Fuentidueña chapel, where it is trailed by a series of garments inspired by baptismal gowns and first-communion dresses. The language used by the curators to contextualize these works is remarkably free of hedging, describing the Eucharist as “a rite instituted by Jesus during the Last Supper.” The experience could not be further removed from the disdain of the “ecclesiastical fashion show.”
The exhibition makes the most of the setting. Liturgical vestments hang alongside glass cases enclosing chalices, reliquaries, and other liturgical items permanently housed in the museum in imitation of a sacristy. Monastic-inspired fashion lines the Cuxa cloister and Pontaut Chapter House, where curators trace the aesthetic heritage of contemporary sportswear back to the minimalism and functionalism of the habit. Mannequins are laid next to tomb reliefs, causing audible gasps among museumgoers. In one cheeky display, a Galliano dress imprinted with the cover of Machiavelli’s The Prince—famously included on the Vatican’s index of banned books—is hidden away underneath a 15th-century staircase.
The curators have a brilliant partner in wigmaker and hairstylist Shay Ashual, who created quietly avant-garde hairpieces to complement the garments on display. Some mannequins are styled as demure brunettes, focusing the attention on the clothes themselves, while others are intended to stand out. In Ashual’s most stunning work, red-violet streaks matted to the face of the mannequin wearing a Thom Browne wedding dress conjure blood and beauty at once. Set against The Unicorn in Captivity, a tapestry that has often been interpreted as Passion symbolism, the hairpiece turns an otherwise enigmatic ensemble into the heavenly wedding garment of a martyr.
Although the Cloisters section of the exhibition is by far the most coherent and compelling, it does occasionally falter, presenting garments with an unclear connection to the Catholic imagination. Especially strange is the inclusion of items from Craig Green’s fall 2017 collection, which is unmistakably Orthodox in its references. Green’s take on the orarion, or Orthodox deacon’s stole, is at best misplaced and at worst offensive inside a room of medieval tapestries depicting the Crusades (during one of which Catholic armies sacked the heart of Orthodoxy at Constantinople).
The exhibition ends with a triumph. In the last room, several pieces from Alexander McQueen’s stunning final collection—the designer died in 2010—are paired with the Flemish Gothic art that inspired them. One of these dresses has the architecture of an altarpiece, doors closed at the wearer’s breast, flanked by protective saints. The image conflates the body with the tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept, an astonishing homage to the sacrament. It is a powerful piece in which an atheist artist reached for the drama of the religious imagination to express the heights to which his appreciation for the body soared. In this quiet finish, the exhibition lives up to its name.