Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is an exhibition that shows the Catholic Church’s influence on fashion designers in imagery and symbolism, and the sumptuous garments and artifacts that inspired them. Exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue flagship in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art, medieval galleries and sculpture hall, and the Robert Lehman Wing, and at the Met Cloisters in Washington Heights, it puts fashion in the context of the museum’s holdings—paintings, tapestries, decorative arts and architecture—a signature strategy of curator Andrew Bolton, who employed this technique in China: Through the Looking Glass in the Chinese Galleries and Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century in the Wrightsman Galleries.

By contrast, The Vatican collection of clothing and jewelry, on loan from the Papacy, is displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center in a self-contained display (one descending, one is greeted by a priest’s cassock designed by artist Henri Matisse which resemble his cutouts, that was part of his commission for the interiors of the Chapel du Rosaire in Vence, France). Music by Samuel Barber, Gabriel Fauré, George Frideric Handel, Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman, and Franz Schubert serenades you through the galleries.

Heavenly Bodies was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with partner Liz Diller taking the lead. The 150 fashion ensembles from the early 20th century to the present, by designers who were largely raised Catholic are either ornate, or by contrast, monastic, usually dramatic, and sometimes over the top; they are set off by DS+R’s refined, solid and decidedly neutral platforms, vitrines, and pedestals in steel, concrete, and acrylic. Diller says she was channeling Carlo Scarpa (1906—1978), the Italian architect who infused contemporary aesthetics into historic building renovations, often museums; Castelvecchio Museum in a 14th-century Verona fortress, Fondazione Querini Stampalia in a 16th-century palazzo, Museo Canova in Possagno, and Pallazo Abatellis in Palermo. Diller, too, has found spareness and balance in her interventions, capitalizing on this collision of contrasts.

Gallery View, Romanesque Hall (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The elegant custom display units include scored concrete pedestals that support cruciform metal tubes capped by a plinth that carries mannequins; clear acrylic boxes on dark gray-scored flooring; long horizontal metal tubes to hang multiple vestments; and a large cantilevered platform emerging from both sides of a partition to hold papal robes flat.

“Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another,” said Bolton. He cited the “parallels between a traditional fashion runway presentation and the liturgical processions of the Roman Catholic Church…theatrical spectacles that rely on the tropes of performance.” This dialogue is particularly strong at the Cloisters, where the physicality of the buildings heightens the interplay; the Cloisters is a pastiche of architectural elements from European monasteries, abbeys, and chapels that were dismantled stone-by-stone and reconstructed on a cliffside site overlooking the Hudson.

One example is in the Gothic Chapel, which features pointed-arched stained glass windows and seven tombs with figurative sculpture effigies. John Galliano’s armored ensemble lies recumbent between two crypts, hovered over by Gareth Pugh’s black zippered outfits perched high on pedestals, while Olivier Theyskens’s red-headed figure in a black gown, fastened with hooks-and-eyes, stands below stained-glass windows in a row with female statues. In another instance, large, dramatic haloed lighting that spills onto darkened floors is featured both at the Cloisters on a Balenciaga-clad bride in the Romanesque Fuentidueña Apse, a semicircular apse with a single-aisle nave, and on Fifth Avenue in the Medieval Sculpture Hall spotlighting Dior-, Valentino-, and McQueen-dressed mannequins. The layout of these galleries mimics the longitudinal plan of a church, with a central nave and side aisles.

(Floto + Warner, Courtesy DS+R)

The Met Cloisters: Fuentidueña Chapel (Floto + Warner, Courtesy DS+R)

The pairings of fashion with appropriate environments can be satisfying. The “monastic silhouettes and minimalist sensibilities…deceptively simple, pared-down” in monochromatic palettes of black, white, and brown by Geoffrey Beene, Madame Grès, Claire McCardell, and Rick Owens are very much at home in the Cloisters’ austere Cuixa Cloister and Pontaut Chapter House. In the Glass Gallery, overlooking the Cloisters’ Cuxa, Bonnefont, and Trie Gardens, rows of trees are interspersed with fashion by Dior, Valentino and Takahashi that were inspired by the paintings Adam and Eve (1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1490–1500), and Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields paintings. Similarly, the Unicorn Tapestry is paired with Thom Browne’s white puff of a wedding dress.

Perhaps the most simpatico pairing is in the Nine Heroes Tapestries Room, where the fashion seems to directly mirror the Met’s art collection: Craig Green’s ensembles, which Women’s Wear Daily called “warrior monk,” closely resemble the French tapestries that depict King Arthur, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hector, and Christian and Hebrew heroes in color, texture, and style.

Amusingly, Philip Treacy’s hats “in their architectural magnificence” with winged cornettes (think The Flying Nun) and molded forms in a series called Madonna Rides Again were inspired by the Burg Weiler Altarpiece which hangs behind it.

Bolton writes, “The influential theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote his magnum opus based on the belief that we first perceive the mystery of God through beauty, not truth.” Here is beauty in abundance in a rich and reverent setting.

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