Our class field trip to the Catholic imagination exhibit coincided with that week in June when America learned that cruelties which had seemed, only days before, entirely unimaginable, were actually becoming realized at our nation’s southwest border. In my class, we talked about it in a stunned, quiet hush. Both the news and the planned outing served as a kind of imaginative elsewhere for my eleven students, who I knew would have rather been anywhere than my hot classroom on Christian Mystical Texts, fulfilling a core requirement three nights a week in the summer. The field trip turned out to be a relief for all of us, those who had been scrolling our newsfeeds incessantly, in horror, but even the overworked athletes cramming in summer credits, the few who had failed Theology in the spring and were trying again, even the three Army veterans with us through the GI Bill, even me. Heavenly Bodies permitted us to immerse ourselves seriously in something else. It managed to be both incredibly soothing and provocative, and it was also just beautiful.

Heavenly Bodies surprised me because I was anticipating a celebration of Catholic aesthetics and fashion. It was partly this. But the exhibition also calls into question the restrained conventions of Catholic art, and gestures toward something more soulful and daring. The Met’s basement display of the Vatican holdings, for instance, was predictable and replicative, summoning what we all already know about the Church’s relationship with power. Elaborately, fabulously embroidered capes, ruby-studded crosses, tiaras, and stoles that passed between the hands of the popes, kings, empresses, and queens of Europe are displayed, including a 1929 gift from Mussolini. (I had missed the Mussolini crown, but one of my students took a surreptitious photo of it and showed me in class the next day.) In the jostle for power, these treasures gilded the bestowal of blessings among Europe’s aristocrats. One broach commissioned by the queen regent of Spain and given to Leo XIII, for example, had his name inscribed in sapphires at the center of a clasp containing seven hundred diamonds. Nuns from religious orders with diminutive names that concealed their formidable artistic prowess (Poor Clare Sisters, Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) made all the gorgeous embroideries (shouldn’t the curators have talked about that?), yet the Vatican wing of the exhibit, for the most part, did not surprise or affect me in any way.

But upstairs at the Met, and throughout the entire collection at the Cloisters, it was different. The atmosphere there was one of transcendence and beauty, enough to take your breath away. There was an air of comic defiance, too, something entirely lacking among the Vatican objects. I was expecting something playful, but had heard about it only as parody, like the sexy celebrities at the Met Gala wearing crucifixes and winking for the hosts of E!. I figured that playfulness was the campy part of Heavenly Bodies, the most commercial, the easiest to dismiss. But I underestimated the seriousness of the humor in the actual exhibit, and the celebrity images I saw had little to do with it.

I am thinking, for instance, of the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s bright orange gown, “Evening Dress” (1939). Covered with images of keys embroidered from gold thread and crystals, the keys are like those Saint Peter holds in classic Christian iconography to symbolize the keys he passes down to the holders of episcopal offices of the Church. These keys lock the doors to women, but depicted on Schiaparelli’s gown, on a woman’s body, cinched at the waist, in the riotous color of a sunset, something subversive, or at least playful, is happening. The hair on every mannequin is also mischievous and joyful, full of surprise (a mohawk made of feathers, or bright red side buns, or hot pink and wet-looking). Another of my favorites was Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Communion” (2007) at the Cloisters. This gown is light pink with a brown lace chalice sewn into the bodice. The communion cup is stitched in such a way that it perfectly cups the mannequin’s breasts, playing with the long symbolic tradition where Jesus’s blood and the breast milk of Mary intermingle. Despite the roots in medieval symbolism, Schiaparelli and Gaultier’s sexy, feminine pieces poke a little fun at the Church’s masculinity and silence on sexuality. But their art is so beautiful it also stops you in your tracks. As the material setting for the gowns, the medieval holdings at the Met and the Cloisters also completely come alive. Taking it all in, you have no choice but to hold together more than one feeling at a time, to simultaneously laugh and gasp at how stunning it all is.

And while playful artists like Gaultier are unusual enough to provoke, they are also part of a recognized cultural repertoire in modern Catholic Europe. René Chateaubriand’s 1802 The Genius of Christianity: The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion comes to mind. Chateaubriand stressed the emotional, imaginative, and aesthetic value of religion. Catholicism deserved a place in modernity because unlike philosophy, it was “poetical,” indeed the most poetical of all the religions because of its extravagant attention to beauty and the imagination. The enduring impact of Chateaubriand’s religious aesthetic spun out in multiple directions, including a generation of deeply conservative Catholic romantics who began to pine for the Middle Ages, both its aesthetics and its politics. Democracy and modernity were felt to have ruined it all, a frightening legacy still with us today.

There were other modern Europeans Catholics too, who loved the exuberant medieval aesthetics like Chateaubriand, but did so with a bit of subversion that helped steer Catholic aesthetics away from the tempting neo-medieval authoritarianism. The French Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1994), reminded readers in his True and False Reform in the Church (1950) that medieval Catholic artists were actually much more comfortable with mocking religious authority than most devout moderns. George Bernanos’s 1929 essay, “Joan, Heretic and Saint,” recreates Joan’s trial in front of bishops and cardinals, “old men, so pious, so rich,” in a “lifeless court reeking with boredom and envy and hatred.” Bernanos’s young Joan, when speaking to these “overfed, somnolent men,” just “finds it,” he writes, “very hard not to laugh.”

Gallery View, Medieval Europe Gallery. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gallery View, Medieval Europe Gallery.
Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So many of the gowns in Heavenly Bodies teemed with the exuberant, playful detail, not only the subversive humor around sex and gender, but details of earth and embodiment too. I am thinking of Gaultier’s “Ex-Voto” (2007), a lace gown covered with aluminum replicas of body parts, meant to evoke devotional offerings given in thanks for miraculous healing. Gaultier stitched a little metal ear onto the shoulder of the dress, a nose into the upper left chest, and more. Extravagant meditations on earth and body were also in Yves Saint Laurent’s vestments for the Virgin of El Rocío, with her crown as a coral reef, with tiny snails tucked in it, made of bronze. These two dresses reminded me so much of the Dominican theologian, Marie-Dominique Chenu (1885-1990), who was once asked what, out of everything, he would like of his theology preserved after he dies. He answered, the “reality of God incarnate in matter.” Many artists in Heavenly Bodies reckoned exuberantly with materiality. They put in the context of the Christian sacred the stuff of ordinary, created existence: coral, snails, noses, breasts, and even ears. Chenu, I think, would have loved it.

I know that gowns with ears, noses, snails are not exactly hilarious, but there was something comedic in them; they were playful, warm, human. Without this playfulness, fashion and the Catholic imagination becomes too much of a formal reverence of power, a gilded sanctioning between empires, the stuff downstairs in the Vatican holdings. That difference seemed so valuable to me in June, and still does, given what is happening in our country.

Just before our visit to Heavenly Bodies, I finished another project on the French Catholic resistance to Nazism. The great historians of the resistance, François and Renée Bédarida, described the religious imagination of the vast majority of French Catholics in the 1940s: “Almost all the faithful then lived in the complete docility towards a very structured and hierarchical Church: authority reigned supreme. Everyone, since childhood. . . had been inculcated to internalize the idea that the first virtue of the Christian was obedience.” Those who did resist Nazism in France did so without any instruction from on high. No political party, no general superior of any religious order, no mother superior, no pope, no monsignor, no official from the episcopate in France or Rome suggested resistance. It came from below. It included some members of the official church, priests and nuns, and many lay men and women, but they did it transgressing authorities, sacred and secular. Authority reigned supreme, so the resistance had to engage the Catholic imagination to dethrone the powers that be, poke holes, and forge another way that drew people in, and still felt holy. I sensed some of that defiance—through play and humor—while still putting beauty back into the world in the best parts of Heavenly Bodies.

The night after our field trip, back in class, we debriefed. One of my students was an African-American father from the Bronx, a veteran who spent years on an army base in Texas. He granted the beauty and sheer talent on display at the Met, but he did not find it nearly as subversive or powerful as I did. “I thought the Catholic Church was supposed to be multicultural,” was the way he put it. The models were all white, he said, every one, not just the obvious color, but the lips on the mannequins, their noses, their hair. He was right.

Then I remembered the incredible photos of Cardi B and some others from the Met Gala, which I had thought was too commercial and irrelevant. I thought of Cardi B’s gorgeous, gold-beaded gown and crown meant to conjure a halo, like the Virgin Mary, and her caramel skin, curly black hair, and a bejeweled round belly, five months pregnant, now set in the context of the holy. It pushed the collection even further than the official holdings. Cardi B, like my student himself, is Bronx-born and also a self-proclaimed Catholic. In a great line that has been in my head all summer from “Best Life,” her song with Chance the Rapper, she pronounces the radical turnaround of her fortunes, God’s ability to bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly: “I’m the rose that came from the concrete in the Rolls/I’m like gold, I’m life goals, man, I’m chosen, I’m floatin’, ayy.”

The Catholic imagination indeed contains multitudes. It includes the conformist leanings of the Church and even its disdain for the people who made Heavenly Bodies possible and successful: the gay men and women, the artists, the stitching nuns, the dreamers, the ones with caramel colored skin, the rebels and the comics and the visionaries. Those were the real stars of Heavenly Bodies, and their art, drawing deeply from the well of Catholic visuality, was critical, playful, and still entirely full of soul.

In the beginning of the Mystic Fable, Michel de Certeau claimed that the language of mysticism speaks of a presence that cannot be fully grasped or contained in any particular language: “it overpowers the inquiry,” he writes, “with something resembling a laugh.” And though Heavenly Bodies at first felt like a much-needed escape, that imaginative elsewhere for my mysticism class that terrible week in June, with awe and “something resembling a laugh,” it turned out to be the most mystical thing we encountered. But without its soulful, comic defiance, it all would have just felt like the basement’s icy treasure.