That "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" is the largest exhibition ever mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art feels somehow fitting given its subject matter. A sprawling exhibition full of unexpected treasures tucked into easy-to-miss corners — and even requiring a pilgrimage uptown to the Met's secluded Cloisters location — the exhibition feels expansive in a way that mimics Scripture itself. It's the kind of thing you probably won't really get to know unless you revisit it over and over.
Though it features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway pieces from fashion's biggest names that touch on the theme, the tone of the exhibition is remarkably reverent at the main location. While there are a few rooms devoted entirely to papal ensembles and other items on loan from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, the most compelling areas see the sacred and the secular placed side-by-side so seamlessly that it's almost difficult to tell which is which.
In that vein, a reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen's Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini's famous sculpture "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun's habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.
The overall effect of that portion of the exhibit, situated as it is amongst high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, communicates a respect for the sacred that highlights Catholic imagery as a source of inspiration for many of fashion's greats. By placing the garments in existing galleries full of other artwork already belonging in the Museum's collection, curator Andrew Bolton subtly asserts that his preferred field of study, fashion, deserves to be elevated to the same status that painting or sculpture have always enjoyed in the halls of art history.
Moving through the space is a remarkably worshipful experience. If, as contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton has suggested, the museum is the modern secularist's equivalent of church — a place one goes to seek enlightenment, sanctuary and a sense of meaning — then Bolton's marriage of the secular liturgy of museum-going with artifacts that the devout see as holy is a unique experiment in creating a space where people who believe different things can truly worship alongside each other.
For guests more interested in subversion than adoration, the exhibition's Cloisters location offers a slightly different experience. Though the Cloisters presents a more explicitly religious context, being constructed from the remains of European monasteries reassembled on American soil, the fashion on display there is more boundary-pushing.
Pop culture moments that brought together fashion figures and Catholic imagery, like Madonna's penchant for pairing crucifixes with fetish-inspired lingerie while on tour or Lady Gaga's Nicola Formichetti-styled "Judas" video, are still noticeably missing. But the clothing on display speaks, if more quietly, for itself: Pieces from Rick Owens's genitalia-revealing Fall 2015 collection are included as part of a group of garments that the curators deemed monastic in their minimalism; elsewhere, a Jean Paul Gaultier dress features a chiffon "communion chalice" that provocatively cups the wearer's breasts.
The Cloisters collection also pushes more boundaries curatorially. While most of the Catholic motifs on display at the main location are obvious (think a bejeweled image of the Madonna and child on a Gianni Versace evening jacket), a few of the connections at the Cloisters are more tenuous.
A frothy white Thom Browne dress, for example, seems to have no religious overtones at all, but its installation in the room that houses the Unicorn Tapestries may remind fashion insiders that the dress was part of a memorable runway show that featured a giant unicorn puppet during the finale. Was Browne's unicorn referencing the obscure symbol of Jesus Christ as a "unicorn" that the tapestries allegedly point to? Probably not, but the dress is so beautiful that even those who don't make the connection are unlikely to be bothered by it.
That beauty, which is the underlying thread holding the whole exhibition together, is its saving grace. Though some secular viewers are likely to think it didn't push far enough into the realm of subversion and critique and some religious visitors may find the commercialization of images of Mary or Christ disrespectful, it's hard to argue that the exhibition is anything less than a feast for the eyes.
For fashion people who are used to dealing with a visual medium, there's not much more you could ask for. But even for the more spiritually-minded, beauty has significant theological ramifications. The idea of "evangelism through beauty" has a long history in the Church both inside and outside of Catholicism; one story claims that Russian pilgrims were so moved by the stunning architecture of Hagia Sophia, a church in Constantinople, that they converted on the spot. Though Hagia Sophia was Orthodox rather than Catholic and a building rather than a dress, it's easy to see how the principle could, in theory, carry over.
"In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness and beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion," said Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the exhibition's press preview Monday morning. "The world is shot through with His glory and His presence."
So will "Heavenly Bodies" convince fashion fans to investigate more deeply the Being that Cardinal Dolan claims is behind all that beauty, or give religious folks who have a tendency to write off fashion as frivolous at best more respect for the ingenuity of the designers re-interpreting Catholic motifs for a new era? Only God knows, but one thing's for sure: This is an exhibition that should not be missed by people in either camp.