At the intersection of art, fashion, religion, and politics.
By Kate Steiner
Art has long served as a tool for translating the human experience. Artists will take the perspectives, feelings, and beliefs of one culture and time and redefine them in the terms of another. Art converses with itself, responding to the ideas of similar works, reframing them, and starting new dialogues. For an art exhibition, curators take art from different genres, locations, time periods, and mediums and place them together in an inventive way. Recently, The Metropolitan Museum of Art did just this with its exhibition of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The show juxtaposed fashion and medieval art to highlight how the opulence and artistry of the Catholic Church has inspired fashion designers and their engagement with Catholicism, creating a conversation, not just between the artist and Church, but with the viewer as well.
Consisting of a wide variety of gorgeously designed gowns and costumes, the exhibit featured mostly Catholic designers from the 20th and 21st centuries, interspersing garments amongst objects from The Met’s medieval and Byzantine collections, as well as some artifacts from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, which had never before been seen outside of the Vatican. Walking into the exhibit, the viewer was confronted by a long-sleeved evening dress from Dolce & Gabbana’s 2013/14 autumn/winter collection, whose jeweled embroidery depicts a mosaic of an icon from Sicily’s Cathedral of Monreale, created in the late 1100s. Placed alongside a Byzantine mosaic from the early 500s depicting a similarly styled figure, these works set the stage for the exhibit as a whole, illustrating the progression and grand arc of visual and cultural influence contained within.
The designers featured in the show helped create a meaningful narrative about faith and identity. Many of the featured designers, like Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, and John Galliano, grew up queer in Roman Catholic environments. Tension between their religious upbringing and internal identities often made them feel isolated from their communities, and so they saw in design an opportunity for creativity and e x p r e s s i o n . Featured pieces included an “angel” made of machine-cut, hand-punched strips of plywood and leather by Alexander McQueen. McQueen drew inspiration from the late 14th century oak altar frontal depicting the Coronation of the Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi surrounded by angels, and used this piece to examine the distance between the preindustrial, the era of the altarpiece, and the industrial age. John Galliano’s “Madonna” is an airy wedding dress, inspired by the Cuzco School, a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cuzco, Peru, which lasted from the 16th to 18th centuries. Its angelic wings draw inspiration from a seraphic wedding ensemble designed by Yves Saint Laurent, also featured in the gallery. Though a number of these creators treaded territory beyond the penumbra of their own personal experience, designing garb for wedding ceremonies they would never experience as part of a tradition that rejected them, the joint source of inspiration in Catholic mythology and custom proved a valuable outlet for expressing both themselves and their existence in the fashion world.
The Catholic imagination has created opulent and recognizable imagery throughout the centuries, inspiring artists across oceans and identities, especially through fashion. The curators of this exhibit, the loans from the Vatican, and the fashions from featured designers, created a narrative of timelessness, personal faith, and creativity. In the end, the greatest part of this conversation was the viewer, who made the connections that have created the dialogue and will bring greater diversity to the table. In a broad sense, “Heavenly Bodies” proved that the past is never lost but simply translated again and again by newer artists, works, and audiences.