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The Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” is an Artist’s Must-See for Opulent Catholic Couture

Image by Catherine M. Callahan

The 2018 Met Gala was a sacrament too lavish to miss; luckily, the Catholic couture it showcased has much more longevity than one star-studded night. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute now features its largest exhibit ever, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The exhibit serves as an appreciation of the Catholic aesthetic and the avant-garde fashion it inspires. With some forty pieces directly from Rome featured in the Anna Wintour Costume Center– most of which have never before left The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Sacristy— “Heavenly Bodies” spans the aisle between controversial and glorified Catholic history.

Against the backdrop of The Met’s medieval and Byzantine section, “Heavenly Bodies” transcends the dynamics of American Catholicism and instead delves into the roots of European Catholicism. American Catholicism, following the height of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the American colonization, can be seen as a counterculture to the Catholicism that dominated such medieval and Byzantine empires. Instead, the European variety showcased at The Met– a stellar vessel of the upbringings of its contributing designers like Met Gala co-chair, Donatella Versace— brings with it the regal color, majestic fabrics, and resounding choral music of a long-crusading Old World culture.

Backed by The Vatican, “Heavenly Bodies” highlights authenticity, rather than blasphemy. Its fashion, from nuns’ habits to angels’ coruscating wings, is not sexualized but instead appreciative of the metaphor its curators intended. It is the divinity evoked from the iconography of The Church that is meant to symbolize the very precedent of meaning in design. Fashion, it affirms, is much more weighted in societal argumentation than in simple appearance.

“Heavenly Bodies” is tasteful to The Church, but make no mistake, the exhibit is anything but modest. It’s curators boast of a regality synonymous with the icons of a foremost world religion. The theatrics, of course, illustrates just that aim. Swelling medieval anthems fill the din of the room. Gilded relics assure that the collection is never disassociated from the history it represents. The Met is the perfect backdrop to remind collection viewers that history and design are multidimensional and, at heart, the same.

Artistic interpretations of the Catholic Church are still subject to the controversy of the institution. Critics assert that the exhibit is not tasteful but safe. It leaves quiet the criticisms of The Church that are inherent to an examination of history. The focus on European Catholicism and its medieval roots maintain a regal and robust tone, but a depiction of Joan of Arc barely scrapes the surface of the violence: of the religious warring and persecution associated with The Church.

The exhibit avoids controversy, and understandably so in the hopes that controversy may not undercut the fashion prowess of the designers featured. Criticism of The Church may have been the cost to present papal artifacts, but their presence is worthy in that they ground the designs in authenticity, maintaining that the exhibit does not transgress into the secular. For its enjoyment and theatrics, “Heavenly Bodies” remains a worthwhile visit and, arguably, a triumph.

“Heavenly Bodies” runs from May 10 through Oct. 8. Though the scintillation of the Met Gala has since faded, the majesty of Catholic iconography and of the big names in fashion– Chanel, Valentino, Balenciaga, Versace, and more– remains.

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Catherine is a seventeen-year-old student from New Jersey. Journalist, artist, and film-lover with a curiosity for all things international.