Open from the 10th of May to October 8th of this year, 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibit presents to viewers and visitors a dazzling, visually stunning showcase of all manner of religious and ornate apparel, armor, and wearable gear inspired by the Catholic faith. Created by fashion designers with a religious background in Catholicism, or otherwise profoundly affected by the tenets and iconography of Catholicism, these pieces were historically sometimes worn by the historical leaders of the Catholic faith— the Pope, or worn by fashion models in an imitation of divine figures.
The exhibit is present in three main areas inside sections of the Met dedicated to specific time periods. One exhibit of Heavenly Bodies is below the Egyptian wing of the museum in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, where the garments and mitres of Popes from the last century and a half, and other religious artifacts such as rings and staffs are shown behind glass containers. They form part of the Vatican Collection. These pieces are accompanied by beautiful angelic choruses singing Church hymns like “Ave Maria”. In the Medieval and Byzantine Art Wing, modern fashion pieces that take inspiration from Catholic iconography line the walls and are exhibited around mannequins at the center of the room, accompanied by equally sublime pieces of organ music. Similar fashion pieces can be found at the Cloisters, although for the purposes of this review, I will be focusing on two pieces— one found in the Vatican Collection, and another found in the Medieval and Byzantine Art Wing.
Descending down into the Anna Wintour Costume Center, one of the first exhibits of the Vatican Collection you will notice is the Mitre of Leo XIII, its accompanying Stole of Leo XIII, and Papal Gauntlets, and its Liturgical Slippers of Pius VIII. All of these adornments and accessories are decked and embroidered with gold, silver, and/or silk, or made out of these materials themselves, suggesting that whoever wore these vestments was of a very high class indeed (i.e. the Pope). The Mitre and the Slippers are of particular note since both of them contain encrusted jewels and precious metals, evoking an air of opulence and wealth on the part of the wearer, though not necessarily monetary wealth.
In addition, the baroque levels of detail on the designs over the mitre and the other apparel worn by Popes like Leo XIII and Pius VIII feature Catholic symbols, such as the cross, as well as inscriptions in Greek and Latin denoting the names of religious figures, such as Jesus Christ, suggesting that the wearer (the Pope), bears the moniker of divinity or semi-divinity under God. He has been coronated as God’s representative on Earth, and as the holiest of holies who leads the Catholic Church. All in all, the ostentatious headgear and wear that could only be worn by the Pope endows him with the aforementioned aura of divine presence that places him in the position of a spiritual guide for the fallen, material world, with the precious jewels not being so much a symbol of the Pope’s actual physical riches (that would counter the tenets of Catholicism, which glorifies poverty and selfless martyrdom), so much as a symbol of the Pope’s spiritual wealth and his heart who is purer and greater than all the world’s metals. The white and gold color of the Pope’s mitre, stole, gauntlets, and slippers liken him to an angelic figure, free and pure from the blackness and crudeness of sin, further transforms him into a being of divinity through artfully designed sacred clothing.
Turning to the Medieval and Byzantine Art Wing, among the fashion ensembles featured as part of the Heavenly Bodies exhibit is John Galliano’s Wedding Ensemble called Madonna (part of a series for Dior), which evokes and transforms its wearer in much the same way as the Pope’s apparel in the Vatican Collection, but in somewhat different ways. Modeled and heavily inspired by Catholic beliefs surrounding the Virgin Mary or “Madonna” figure in the New Testament (Mother of Christ), the wedding gown piece invokes the notion of the ghostly and supernatural “virgin bride”, giving the wearer an exquisite sense of feminine beauty and supreme aura that almost transcends the earthly, material realm (just like the Pope in all of his goodness, almost transcends the earthly realm and looks towards God).
According to some descriptions of this dress, the Virgin Mary is conceptualized as an angelic and celestial “Queen of Heaven”, and Madonna nails the angelic motif with the transparent and diaphanous wings situated behind its main garments. The piece overall also mimics the stars often depicted over the Virgin Mary’s head in numerous pieces of art depicting her— the stars symbolizing a sort of Crown of Immortality or halo often mentioned in relation to the Book of Revelation’s Woman of the Apocalypse— a figure often identified as the Virgin Mary herself in the Catholic tradition, who births Jesus in the Immaculate Conception, so that he may rule all nations and redeem humanity from Satan’s influence. The golden headpiece on top of Madonna, incidentally, features a queenly crown at its center, surrounded by the stars and sun-like golden rays, reinforcing the notion that the wearer (in this case a fashion model) has, ultimately, been endowed with divine power and authority, and royalty in the heavens.
With this, we can conclude both the Papal garments belonging to Leo XIII, and Pius VIII, and Madonna transform their respective wearers by elevating them to status of beings not of this Earth, by elevating them to the position of celestial authority under God and under Heaven, by endowing them with divine power and presence.
Overall, I would highly recommend anyone— whether familiar with the Catholic faith or not, or whether enamoured with the beauty of art and fashion, or not— to attend this show. As someone who grew up in a Catholic household, Heavenly Bodies affected me personally in my process of viewing all the garments and artifacts from centuries ago, and now. Regardless of your personal or religious upbringing, however, if you visit the Met and take the time to view Heavenly Bodies, you won’t be disappointed with the beauteousness of its pieces and its atmosphere overall.