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Beyoncé in a look inspired by the Yoruba goddes Oshun.
Beyoncé performing in a Peter Dundas gown at the 2017 Grammys.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Beyoncé and Her Religious Symbolism Aren’t Attending the Met Gala

The pop star has previously drawn on the Catholic Church and the Yoruba religion for inspiration.

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Beyoncé will reportedly be a no-show at Monday’s Met Gala. ET is reporting that Jay-Z whisked her off on a surprise vacation because he thought his wife needed a break before their On the Run II tour starts in June. Just last month, Bey headlined Coachella for two weekends straight in a performance so lauded that fans nicknamed the event #Beychella. And, of course, she’s balancing it all with being a mother of three. So, yeah, she definitely needs a break, but she will be sorely missed at the fashion event of the year.

Not only is her absence a letdown for her fans and for Peter Dundas, the designer said to have worked on a custom-made gown for the singer to wear at the ball, but it’s a bummer because no celebrity embodies this year’s motif more than Queen Bey does.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is the theme of the 2018 Met Gala. Beyoncé is a perfect fit because for years she’s explored religion and spirituality in her art. Her catalog includes a song called “Ave Maria,” and the visual album Lemonade repeatedly alludes to the black church (see: “Formation”) and Yoruba spirituality. Even the video for Jay-Z’s “Family Feud,” with Beyoncé on vocals, takes place at an elaborate church.

There’s also the fact that the Beyhive regards Beyoncé as more goddess than entertainer. Case in point: Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco, held a “Beyoncé Mass” as part of its series highlighting those, such as women of color, whom Christianity has marginalized.

Beyoncé’s sartorial choices have lent credence to the idea that she should be exalted. When she announced her pregnancy with twins Rumi and Sir in 2016, she sat kneeling in lingerie before a giant display of flowers, the sheer veil cloaking her drawing comparisons to images of the Virgin Mary. When the twins arrived the following year, Beyoncé adopted nearly identical imagery in the birth announcement she posted to Instagram.

The Black Madonna is also known as the Dark Virgin
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

“In the images accompanying her pregnancy announcement, Beyoncé simultaneously confronts and undermines the historical racial and sexist stereotypes of the Virgin Mary and Jezebel, and responds to the association between whiteness and purity that remains alive and kicking in Western culture,” wrote the University of Sheffield’s Katie Edwards in the Washington Post. (Edwards is the director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies.)

The scholar also noted how the singer’s pregnancy and birth announcements weren’t the only times that Beyoncé repurposed Virgin Mary imagery. In the 2013 video for her single “Mine,” she recreated Michelangelo’s marble sculpture “Pietà”; it depicts Mary holding the crucified Jesus. While Edwards credits Beyoncé with challenging Western religious norms, she overlooks the long tradition of art portraying Mary as the Black Madonna. These images of the dark-skinned Mary date back to 13th- and 14th-century Italy and are widespread in Mexico, where “La Virgen Morena,” or the Dark Virgin, is a beloved figure.

Having grown up in the heavily Latino city of Houston, Texas, Beyoncé may be familiar with the Dark Virgin. If so, her decision to portray herself as Mary is not only about subverting Western religious norms but could be a recognition of how communities of color have found their way into a religion imposed upon them by their colonizers.

Beyoncé  at the 2017 Grammys
Beyoncé in a Peter Dundas gown at the 2017 Grammys.
Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

As she has tapped into Catholic imagery, Beyoncé has also explored the religious traditions of African cultures, especially the Yoruba of West Africa. In 2011, she appeared on the cover of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris with tribal paint and dark skin, sparking a blackface controversy.

Fast-forward six years, and the pop star was still using such imagery (sans blackface), appearing as the Yoruba deity Oshun at the 2017 Grammys. Oshun is the goddess of fertility and the Yoruba are an ethnic group known for their high rate of twin births, all reasons Beyoncé, who reportedly struggled to conceive, may have developed an interest in the West African spiritual tradition.

To portray the goddess, Beyoncé wore a gold gown designed by Peter Dundas. He’s the same designer who purportedly designed the gown she would have worn to tonight’s Met ball. She wore a cherry metallic Dundas gown on the Grammys red carpet last year as well, so don’t feel too bad for him that Beyoncé won’t be wearing one of his creations at the 2018 Met Gala — she’s already given him plenty of shine. Just two weeks ago, she and Destiny’s Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams attended the opening of his store in Los Angeles.

Beyoncé at the 2014 Met Gala
Beyoncé at the 2014 Met Gala, where her sister, Solange Knowles, and husband, Jay-Z, clashed.
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Over the years, Beyoncé has also given the Met Ball lots of love. She made her first appearance in 2008 and attended the event annually from 2011 to 2016. Unfortunately, she’s perhaps most remembered for her 2014 appearance at the ball, when her sister, Solange Knowles, struck Jay-Z in an elevator as Bey looked on. The singer can’t quite put the violent conflict between her family members in the past. As recently as March, her father, Matthew Knowles, joked about it on The Wendy Williams Show. The incident offered the public a peek into Beyoncé private life that clashed dramatically with her dignified and controlled image.

Still, she returned to the ball the next year. And in 2016, she dropped Lemonade, arguably her most personal album. It hinted at the turmoil she’d faced in her relationship (although she never confirmed or denied any of the speculation about her marriage). Today, her husband’s concern for her well-being is purportedly the reason she’s skipping the 2018 ball. While she won’t attend, it is still her year, as she’s spent so much of her career exploring the theme of the evening.

A patron saint of sorts for her fans, Beyoncé is not simply a champion of black women. She’s an entertainer who has used her platform to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, black culture, and art.

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