As briefly mentioned in last week’s post, I visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art during my time in New York, primarily to see Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, The Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition.
The Institute’s largest and most ambitious exhibition ever examines fashion’s ongoing engagement with practices and traditions of Catholicism and features 20th and 21st century fashion inspired by Catholic tradition alongside sacred items of the Sistine Chapel Sacristy.
The exhibition occupies two separate sites, The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters (located further uptown), said to encourage a “pilgrimage” between the two. Our busy trip itinerary unfortunately meant we were only able to visit the former, however the part of the exhibition I was able to see left me breathless.
A key idea of Catholicism is that you honour God by making and displaying beautiful things in devotion to him. As a result, Catholic churches are adorned with religious art and decoration and their clergy wear robes of rich materials and heavy embroidery.
This idea serves as a cornerstone to the exhibition with the Anna Wintour Costume Center playing host to a collection of over 40 papal robes, tiaras and mantles from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside The Vatican. The loan of such items was negotiated over two years and 12 trips to Rome.
Photography in this area of the exhibition was not permitted and the lack of tourists snapping away – as well as the ethereal music that played – lead to a becalming experience, disturbed only by being absolutely amazed by the items on show. I was particularly dazzled by the dalmatic of Pope Pius IX (papal reign: 1846-1878), a wide-sleeved tunic depicting stalks of wheat and bunches of grapes in golden embroidery; references to the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Couture and ready-to-wear 20th and 21st century fashions are displayed in the Byzantine and medieval galleries, seamlessly juxtaposed against the galleries’ religious art. Some pieces lay forth the inspiration that fashion has drawn from the visual iconography of the Catholic Church, examples of such including wedding ensembles by Christian Lacroix and John Galliano, both inspired by the tradition of the dressed Madonna (see below).
Others take influence from and refer to garments worn by the clergy and religious orders. A black and white ensemble by House of Moschino pays homage to the habit, the female religious dress, in a playful interpretation including a veil that recalls the iconic headdress worn by the Daughters of Charity, popularised by the 1960s television series The Flying Nun. Elsewhere a red silk taffeta Valentino gown recalls cappa magna worn by cardinals and bishops as choir dress for special and solemn liturgical occasions, its form implying the cappa magna’s overblown proportions (see below).
Exploring both parts of the exhibition, I was moved by both the sheer beauty of the fashions and by their symbolism. I was left with chills for days. And, I strongly urge anyone with the ability to visit Heavenly Bodies to do so. It ends on October 8th, 2018.
Peace and love, Bec