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Exhibitions/ Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination/ Exhibition Galleries: The Met Fifth Avenue—Medieval, Byzantine, Lehman Galleries

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

At The Met Fifth Avenue
May 10–October 8, 2018

Exhibition Galleries: The Met Fifth Avenue—Medieval, Byzantine, Lehman Galleries

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.

—Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (2000)

Heavenly Bodies features the work of designers who for the most part were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. While their current relationships to Catholicism vary, most acknowledge its enduring influence on their imaginations. On the surface, this influence is expressed through explicit Catholic imagery and symbolism as well as references to specific garments worn by the clergy and religious orders. On a deeper level, it manifests as a reliance on storytelling, and specifically on metaphor—which the sociologist Andrew Greeley describes as the essential characteristic of a particular sensibility he defines as "the Catholic imagination."

This exhibition explores how the Catholic imagination has shaped the creativity of designers and how it is conveyed through their narrative impulses. These impulses are reflected in the organization of the exhibition, which unfolds as a series of short stories told through conversations between religious artworks in The Met collection and fashions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Catholic imagination also operates on an experiential level, and, accordingly, the show’s configuration evokes the concept and practice of a pilgrimage.

The journey begins at The Met Fifth Avenue in the Byzantine and medieval art galleries and continues in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. It concludes at The Met Cloisters in northern Manhattan, where elements from French monasteries have been rebuilt as four cloisters. While the fashions might seem far removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, these contexts illuminate the myriad ways in which they embody the imaginative traditions of Catholicism. Taken together, the fashions and artworks in Heavenly Bodies sing in unison with distinctly enchanted and enchanting voices.

The center of public religious life in the Byzantine world, churches made the heavenly paradise visible to the devout. Monumental figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints worked in richly colored mosaic and fresco covered many of their interior walls. These elaborate decorations, particularly the mosaics with their glittering tesserae, have provided an infinite source of inspiration for designers.

On display in this gallery are five dresses from Dolce & Gabbana's autumn/winter 2013–14 collection, which was inspired by the dazzling mosaics of the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Iconic images from the cathedral's tilework, most frequently those of saints, have been skillfully printed and meticulously embroidered onto the garments. Those images are combined with others from mosaics in additional religious sites in Sicily, such as the Cathedral of Cefalù, the Martorana or Co-Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Admiral, and the Palatine Chapel of the Palace of the Normans. The hand-stitched paillettes that embellish the dresses evoke the medium of mosaic, in which each tile is placed separately to form the overall design, as can be seen in the two floor mosaics in this gallery.

The center of public religious life in the Byzantine world, churches made the heavenly paradise visible to the devout. Monumental figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints worked in richly colored mosaic and fresco covered many of their interior walls. These elaborate decorations, particularly the mosaics with their glittering tesserae—such as the example on view here depicting the interior of an early church—have provided an infinite source of inspiration for designers.

Featured here are five dresses from Gianni Versace's autumn/winter 1997–98 collection, which, like the pieces from his autumn/winter 1991–92 collection displayed in the crypt below the Great Hall stairs, were inspired by the striking mosaics of Ravenna's Byzantine monuments, including: the Arian Baptistry, the Basilica of San Vitale, the Chapel of Sant'Andrea, the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe. This influence is expressed in the fabric of the dresses, a nonwoven, metal-mesh material known as Oroton, which gives the illusion of intricate tesserae. The defining decorative element of the garments is an elaborate cross, the form of which was directly inspired by the gilded silver processional cross that introduces this gallery, which Versace discovered while visiting The Met exhibition The Glory of Byzantium (1997).

The Virgin Mary is one of the most prevalent figures in the tapestries, sculptures, altarpieces, and stained-glass windows of The Met's medieval galleries. As the mother of Jesus Christ, Mary was central to medieval religious belief and practice. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an extraordinary growth of the cult of the Virgin. She was worshipped as the Bride of Christ and queen of heaven, as well as the personification of the Church and intercessor for the salvation of mankind.

A popular Marian devotion that dates to the early Middle Ages but took root later in the period is the dressed Madonna and Child, a theme also explored at The Met Cloisters. It is probable that the two wood statues on the south wall of this gallery would have been adorned with costumes, gifts, or votive offerings, especially during processions. This devotion continues today, and several fashion designers have created garments for Madonna and Child sculptures. Featured in this gallery is an example by Yves Saint Laurent, designed for the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Compassion in Paris, and another by Riccardo Tisci, made for the Parish of Saint Peter the Apostle in Palagianello, Italy.

The design of the Medieval Sculpture Hall resembles the longitudinal plan of Western churches, with its central aisle, or nave, and two side aisles. This layout responds to both the structure and character of liturgical worship and amplifies its emphasis on the ceremonial and the processional. There are distinct parallels between a traditional fashion runway presentation and the liturgical processions of the Roman Catholic Church. Typically, both follow an orderly, predetermined arrangement; both involve active participants (models or the clergy) and passive ones (guests or the laity); and both are accompanied by music.

Essentially, fashion presentations and church processions are theatrical spectacles that rely on the tropes of performance. Federico Fellini explores these connections in his "ecclesiastical fashion show," a scene from his film Roma (1972) that unfolds as a satirical and carnivalesque presentation of religious styles of dress that reflect the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Employing Fellini's fashion show as an organizing principle, the designs on display in this gallery explore this "holy ordering" through a cast of religious characters identifiable by their dress.

Religious dress functions not only to distinguish one religious community from another, but also to distinguish members within a given community from one another. This is true within the Roman Catholic Church, where dress serves to reflect and reinforce divisions based on rank and gender, themes explored in the fashions on view here. The hierarchy of the Church is most emphatically communicated through color: black for priests, violet for bishops, scarlet for cardinals, and white for the pope. These hues are reflected in both the daily dress and the formal or official (colloquially known as pian) dress of the secular clergy. Nuns and monks elect a deliberately modest position due in part to their status as "consecrated religious," which the canon law of the Church describes as "characterized by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience." Technically, the term "nun" refers to members of enclosed or semi-enclosed religious orders who take "solemn" vows, while "sister" refers to members of religious congregations who take "simple" vows.

The ensemble of clothing and accessories that compose female religious dress, including the tunic, scapular, and veil, is called a habit. Typically, the tunic (sometimes itself referred to as the habit) is belted at the waist with a broad sash or cincture, to which is attached a rosary (worn to the side). The scapular, a long apron-like garment, is worn over the tunic. A veil of varying lengths, but always falling over the neck, is usually placed over an underveil covering the hair and neck and attached to a close-fitting cap or coif. The ensemble also includes a bandeau across the forehead and a wimple (also known as a toque or guimpe) that covers the neck and shoulders and sometimes extends over the chin.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church extends beyond the earthly realm and into the celestial, with different rankings of saints and angels. The most influential angelic hierarchy was proposed by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the fourth or fifth century, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy). Drawing on passages from the New Testament, Pseudo-Dionysius developed a schema of three Hierarchies, each of which contained three Orders of Choirs. The highest ranking are Councillors (Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones); the middle are Governors (Dominions, Virtues, and Powers); and the lowest are Ministers (Principalities, Archangels, and Angels).

Since Angels function as guides, protectors, and messengers to humans, they feature most prominently in the imagination of fashion designers. Examples by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent can be seen in this gallery and adjacent Treasury. In the balcony facing the Spanish choir screen is a "choir of angels" wearing robes designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga for the Orfeón Donostiarra, a concert choir based in Spain.

Notwithstanding the biblical injunction to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" rather than on earth (Matthew 6:20), medieval churches continued the ancient tradition of housing their most valuable objects in treasuries. The Met Fifth Avenue treasury, like a similar treasury at The Met Cloisters, contains key examples of such riches from across Europe, from the ninth to the fifteenth century. These works of art in precious materials are paired with fashions and accessories, some of which share formal associations, and which are treasures in and of themselves. Altar frontals, stained glass, rosaries, and silver and gold reliquaries offer material manifestations of faith that have been reinterpreted by designers in the vernacular of fashion. These objects attest to the luxury and artistic sophistication of medieval artists and patrons alike, and the juxtapositions here demonstrate the ability of these works to engage and inspire designers in the present.

One of the most extraordinary private art collections assembled in the United States, the Robert Lehman Collection is particularly strong in paintings of the Italian and the Northern Renaissance, many of which are based on religious themes and subjects. The saints and angels in those works provide context for the fashions shown in this gallery.

Thierry Mugler's ensembles reflect his engagement with the performative nature of fashion. His spectacular tenth-anniversary collection L'Hiver des Anges (The Winter of the Angels), comprised a cast of celestial characters inspired by the cults of angels, saints, and the Virgin. The dresses by Jeanne Lanvin claim a more specific association—the exquisitely dressed and beautifully choreographed angels in the early Italian Renaissance paintings of Fra Angelico. Known as "the Angelic painter," Fra Angelico reveled in decorative detail and an elegant palette, the full range of which is perhaps most evident in his frescoes for the convent of San Marco in Florence (1438–45). These paintings, the climax of his artistic career, also inspired a capsule couture collection by Kate and Laura Mulleavy for Rodarte, on display in this gallery.

John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947). Evening ensemble, autumn/winter 2000–2001 haute couture. Courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb