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Just How Catholic Is the Met’s New Fashion Exhibit?

A theologian weighs in.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art will open its latest fashion exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” to the public on May 10. The museum’s largest show ever, “Heavenly Bodies” examines the ways that fashion designers have been influenced by Catholic aesthetics — often as a result of their own religious upbringing — and showcases more than 40 liturgical garments on loan from the Vatican.

While the Vatican’s vestments are sequestered in the subterranean Anna Wintour Costume Center, the rest of the exhibit sprawls across several galleries in the Met’s main building, including the medieval and Byzantine section, and even extends to the Met Cloisters far uptown. Making use of the museum’s considerable religious art collection, Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton has placed the garments near works whose styles inspired them (Versace tops with glittering, mosaic-like beadwork are displayed among Byzantine mosaics, for instance).

Following Monday’s press preview of the exhibit, Racked reporter Eliza Brooke and Vox religion reporter Tara Burton sat down with John Seitz, a professor in Fordham University’s theology department, to hash out the exhibit’s representations of Catholicism.

What’s the big takeaway?

Seitz: There were a lot of layers to it. The creators of the exhibit were pretty aware, I think, of some of the ironies that were implicit in the concept to start with. Overall, I think it was really fascinating and stimulating and more playful than even they were acknowledging. They wanted to have a certain solemnity to it, which I respect. At the same time, underneath that was a knowing creativity or playfulness. I thought that was intriguing.

Brooke: I thought it was really theatrical too. You enter the central portion of the exhibit, which is the museum’s medieval and Byzantine area, and there are all these mannequins under spotlights, as though they’re in beams of light. It’s very dark otherwise, much like a church would be. There’s epic choral music playing overhead. The curatorial team was playing with the theatricality of Catholicism, despite it being a pretty moderate exhibit in a lot of ways.

A mannequin wears an elaborate wedding dress covered in flowers and lace.
A Christian Lacroix wedding ensemble.

Burton: I knew in advance that the exhibit was going to be pretty respectful, knowing the Vatican had been involved, but often in pop culture when we see something that’s Catholic but then subverted into the secular sphere, it’s transgression for transgression’s sake or highly sexualized. I’m thinking of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video.

For this exhibit, many of the designers featured were raised Catholic — and in particular, like Gianni and Donatella Versace or Dolce & Gabbana, they were Italian Catholic; it wasn’t really an American Catholic context. Like John said, there was a playfulness to it, but this was childhood nostalgia playfulness rather than outright subversion. There were very few fashion equivalents of “Piss Christ.”

Brooke: In the first room of the exhibit, there’s a mask by A.F. Vandevorst that’s basically a fetish mask. It’s made of black leather belts and has rosaries draped over it. But even that was handled in a very subdued way. It was in a glass display case, under very undramatic lighting.

Catholicism’s relationship to capitalism

Brooke: John, you mentioned the exhibit’s ironies earlier. What are you thinking of there?

Seitz: I’m talking about the criticism of the Catholic Church as a site of excess, luxury, wealth, and power. And I don’t know the degree to which this exhibit was really conscious of that history and the criticism of the church’s coziness with power, or coziness with elite culture and finance. We have Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone Group, and Versace [co-sponsoring the exhibit].

The narrative that the exhibit is offering is one of beauty and truth and goodness, as woven into a Catholic imagining of the world. I think there’s some real power to that, and I think that’s really resonant and has been over history. At the same time, that way of imagining what Catholicism is about can shield the church from criticism of alignment with power rather than alignment with the margins. I’m certainly interested in the ways that there’s a Catholic way of embracing the material world and cherishing the creativity of artists, and that’s, I think, really rich. On the other hand, it can provide cover for a desire to be aligned with power.

A pair of gold shoes and white gloves under a glass display case.
Garments on loan from the Vatican.

Burton: I was really struck by having the Blackstone CEO up there side by side with Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Dolan in particular is interesting because — although of course as archbishop of New York, he had to be there — he’s been such a vocal defender of capitalism, even writing an article in 2014 in the Wall Street Journal defending Catholic support of capitalism and trying to underplay Pope Francis’s well-documented socialism.

At the press preview, Dolan spoke about “goodness, beauty, and truth” of Catholicism — he quoted one of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poems about how the world is “shot through with the glory of God.” But it’s difficult to dissociate beauty from costly excess, especially in that highly capitalism-sympathetic context.

Seitz: The Catholic social tradition is one which has kind of tried to split the middle between capitalism and socialism, to be kind of blunt about it, since the 19th century. There’s Catholic economic thought that tries to accommodate the idea of private property really robustly, respecting the idea that private property provides everyday people with leverage in the world, at the same time that the speakers for the church and thinkers within the church have thought and worried about the excesses of capitalism. They’ve been deeply, deeply concerned about that.

Starting in the 19th century, the church has really been making a case that the government and other agencies really need to be empowered to rein in those excesses and make sure people have the capacity to have a living wage. So, economically speaking, the church has tried to play down the middle with this notion of capitalism.

The exhibit here I would say chucks a lot of that into the distance. The fact that we went [to the press preview] on the day of the Met Gala — which is this super-high-capitalist, consumerist moment of excess, frankly — that heightens my awareness, at least. Several hours from now, it’s going to be a real fashion show, essentially, which is not bad, but there’s a kind of irony in that, or a tension there that the exhibit really is not thinking about.

The standout garments (and vestments)

Brooke: A number of pieces were on view in glass cases, including a crystal Byzantine cross that was paired with two very similar crystal crosses created by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and a few others by Karl Lagerfeld, who now designs for Chanel.

To me, what was so crazy about that display was how similar all three looked to one another — it took me a minute to figure out which was which. That’s what I found most successful about this exhibit: A lot of shows take multiple artists and put them “in conversation,” so to speak, but it’s often hard to focus on analyzing how they relate to one another because you wind up looking at each work of art individually. This was the rare exhibit where I was really engaging with the fashion and the art surrounding it at the same time.

Were there particular garments that you guys fixated on?

Seitz: I thought it was interesting to see the one inspired by Joan of Arc, which had this armor plate [on the arm]. There was a gesture to the violence of the tradition there, though it wasn’t bloody, which a lot of Catholic iconography is. But she was dead.

A mannequin, lying in repose as though in death, wears a white dress with a metal plate of armor on her upper arm.
A Jean Paul Gaultier ensemble inspired by Joan of Arc, from spring/summer 1994.

Seitz: There was one reference to violence among the vestments [on loan from the Vatican]. It was one of the priests’ vestments that did depict the scourging of Christ, or the flagellation, which is Christ being skewered, basically.

Most of the rest of it is much more about transcendence, rather than the earthiness or groundedness of the tradition. The gestures were toward escape from earthiness, with the angels and the resurrection.

Brooke: Like the Thierry Mugler dress that was placed at the top of an archway. It’s this sparkling, pale blue “Madonna” evening ensemble.

A model floats above an archway wearing a white and blue dress.
Thierry Mugler’s “Madonna” evening ensemble.

Burton: One piece that stood out was a gold dress by Dolce & Gabbana, which was based on priests’ attire and worn with a mitre. What I found interesting about this piece is that on the one hand it transforms the body into an icon, essentially. You focus on the body as a site of beauty, a site of transcendence. It’s a kind of affirmation of the goodness of creation.

But what it’s not is fleshly. You can see the model’s bare legs, but it’s not figure-hugging. It doesn’t accentuate the human body — it doesn’t just cover it, but it makes it irrelevant.

At the heart of Christian ideology is the body and the blood. The priestly vestments for women were so much more emphatic of the body than the couture dresses were.

Mannequins stand in a line dressed in long black robes.
A row of mannequins dressed in designers’ riffs on black cassocks worn by the male clergy.

Brooke: That’s a great point. Couture is interesting because it’s such a power play to buy it: It’s made to measure, by hand, and it takes forever to create. But when you’re looking at a couture dress, you’re not looking at the person’s body. You’re examining the technique and embellishment of the clothing itself.

What is the “Catholic imagination”?

Burton: The theme is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” What is the Catholic imagination? Father Andrew Greeley wrote a book in 2000 trying to codify this, but in your view, John, what makes the Catholic aesthetic?

Seitz: I think Greeley’s really talking about sacramental imagination, which is this notion that God and grace are present in the things of this world, and the things of this world are possible communicators of grace to all of us. The Catholic imagination and sacramental imagination go together, and I think that’s what he’s thinking about.

He wants to differentiate Catholics from non-Catholics, from Protestants especially, on the grounds of their corresponding willingness to think with and work with and embrace materiality as part of their life of worship, and as part of their aesthetic more broadly.

I agree with you, however, that it’s easy to flatten the Catholic imagination to forget the ways that even that aesthetic can plaster over ambition or violence. There’s a lot in American Catholic history, and beyond, of interest in or manipulation of an aesthetic that valorizes suffering. That has been used against people.

The Catholic imagination can be used to make meanings not just for people’s elevation and enlightenment, but to make meanings against people. The pain or the violence or somehow suffering is itself holy or elevates you into a company of the holy.

There’s so much more here — there’s gender, the fact that the priesthood is all male — that this exhibit is playing with in lots of different ways, but not overtly.

A red and blue beaded top.
A mosaic-like Versace top.

Most of the designers featured in the exhibit are Europeans who were raised Catholic, and that matters

Burton: Many if not most, if not all designers in the exhibit are European Catholics. Is the American Catholic aesthetic different from the European Catholic aesthetic?

Seitz: I think the European avant-garde in the early part of the 20th century were very fascinated with and eager to embrace the medieval as a kind of antidote to what they saw as the corruptions of modernity. They’re looking for elan and richness and spirit and locating that as part of the medieval, and trying to — selectively, for sure — cull the medieval for use in the modern.

Now, in the American avant-garde, there were some Americans who went along this path and embraced that as well, but I think the immigrant history of Catholicism in this country positioned Catholics differently with respect to the medieval. They were really, in a sense, trying to get away from Europe and find a way to be counted among white Americans, which they weren’t really considered when they first got here. And so their relationship to Europe and the medieval is very different.

Of course, the founding of this country was one of hostility to Catholicism, really. One historian of American religion says that America didn’t just have an anti-Catholic movement — America was an anti-Catholic movement in its founding. This idea that what we’re doing is separating ourselves from the legacy, claws, hierarchicalism of Catholic Europe.

A white robe on display.
Vestments from the Vatican’s collection.

Did the exhibit play it safe?

Burton: The Catholic aesthetic has been taken up by queer artists and writers, whether as practicers or people engaging with it — everyone from Oscar Wilde to Robert Mapplethorpe. What is it about the Catholic aesthetic that has made it so potent for queer creators?

Seitz: It’s a tough question, and you may be able to answer that as well as I can, but there’s a sort of — this is a weird thing to say, but there’s a kind of countercultural element to the ways Catholic clothing has worked. There’s a kind of pride that Catholics have taken in the persistence of these forms of aesthetic garments. Even if it’s ambivalent, which it has been in the US, there is in that ambivalence a certain pride in the Catholic difference. Catholics were happy to be not counted among average Americans, and Catholic stuff kind of helped them mark themselves out as slightly different from America.

So maybe that slightly countercultural piece of Catholic dress opens out to reappropriation by others who feel themselves marginalized or even discriminated against.

A model wears a frothy white wedding dress with angel wings.
A Dior “Madonna” wedding ensemble created by John Galliano.

Burton: As much as I love the exhibit, the more we talk, the more disappointed I am at how safe it played it, both theologically and aesthetically. There’s such a rich, complicated tradition in Catholicism of asceticism, of mortification of the flesh (like hair shirts, whips for self-flagellation), that’s often been reappropriated by, say, BDSM fetish wear. Something that uses the human body and human sensation as a basis for apprehending God. There wasn’t anything on exhibit that spoke to dynamic. I think that aspect of sexuality, even fetishism, could have been explored without being sacrilegious.

Brooke: Do you think the Vatican still would have been down to participate?

Burton: I don’t know the extent of their agreement well enough to comment, but it seems to me that the provision was made that they display the Vatican’s vestments separately. As far as I know, no promises were made publicly about the content of the rest.

Seitz: I think it’s kind of cool that they had some designs that were clearly based on priests’ clothing — cassocks and that kind of thing — but designed for women’s bodies. I think that’s kind of provocative for the Catholic Church. It has an all-male, celibate hierarchy. To play with that notion of a female priest, even if it’s only in the imagination of a fashion designer — I think there’s something interesting and kind of fun about that.

A mannequin wears a long black robe with an embroidered icon on the chest.
A Jean Paul Gaultier cassock on display in the medieval and Byzantine section.

Ultimately, the show makes Catholicism wholly unthreatening

Seitz: One thing that I want to mention is this notion that the museum makes Catholicism tolerable or accessible or acceptable to the public. It’s an early-20th-century phenomenon that Catholicism is, in the secular or modernist imagination, hostile to democracy, hostile to progress, hostile to freedom, and is backward, superstitious, weird, and everything we despise as “modern people,” supposedly. But then when you bring it into the museum, all of a sudden it’s beauty, it’s art, it’s fashion.

It makes it okay to appreciate and absorb it, so I think that’s a really interesting dynamic that’s at play here, and one that has roots in the creation of a modern museum. This idea that we take all this medieval stuff, and in a museum we can defang it.

Brooke: It sterilizes it for sure.

Seitz: It makes it into something that’s not threatening. You can engage with the beauty of it and not need to worry too much about the theology or the hierarchy or various pieces of it that seemed problematic. All of that can just be set aside in a sense, and we just appreciate it for the aesthetics.

A pink dress with a gold waist piece.
The details on a series of Rodarte gowns.

Brooke: I think that’s such a good point. This is an enormously mainstream exhibit, much more so than some of their past shows have been. I think you can come see it and take away what you want to.

Burton: As someone who’s often a defender of religion, I expected it to emphasize the “bad” of Catholicism. The hatred of the body, the hatred of sex — in the secular imagination, there is a latent anti-Catholicism that deals with those things. Instead, I find myself less challenged than I would hope by the exhibit, in part because it is neutered and defanged. It seems that the Met, perhaps as it has to as a mainstream institution, is mainstreaming the aesthetic of traditional Catholicism without contextualizing it theologically or politically.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity..

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