One of the goals of the Met exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is to explore the influence of Roman Catholicism on the aesthetic of top designers such as Gianni Versace, Christian Dior, and Domenico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana. However, its extravagant staging in the museum’s Medieval Collection in fact allows visitors to do much more: to see Roman Catholicism itself through a glass, darkly. The three-way conversation among the high-fashion garments, the medieval Catholic artifacts among which they are exhibited, and the viewer creates a dialogue that highlights certain aspects of the “Catholic imagination” while negating others.

Clothing has always been important in Catholicism. In medieval Europe, when the cult of relics was at its height, cloth helped bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Because the two most precious bodies of Catholic Christianity, those of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, were unavailable for the direct veneration of the pious—having ascended or been “assumed,” respectively, into heaven—the clothes they had worn during their earthly lives became cherished means of connection with their vanished holy bodies. Trier Cathedral boasts the “Holy Robe,” the seamless garment for which Jesus’s Roman executioners cast lots. Chartres claims the Virgin’s veil, Prato’s Duomo her sash. Historically, cloth has also been a favored medium of Catholic miracles. In medieval Europe, pilgrims flocked to see the “Veronica Cloth,” the rag upon which Jesus was believed to have wiped his sweating brow whilst carrying his cross, leaving behind a miraculous image of his suffering face. And still today, despite both biblical and scientific challenges, the Shroud of Turin is widely venerated as the burial cloth of Christ, mysteriously marked with the haunting likeness of the crucified.

Over the centuries, the clothing of the Catholic elite helped to establish and solidify the Church’s hierarchy. Particular garb distinguished priests and nuns, at a glance, from the laity—serving as visible markers of their invisible vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Catholic clothing also distinguished the internal ranks of the clergy or identified its wearer’s religious order. Cardinals blaze in crimson; bishops in royal purple. Wearing regalia fit for “princes of the Church,” Catholic functionaries took their place in the terrestrial ecosystem of power alongside Europe’s monarchs, deigning to grant them the right to rule through resplendent coronation masses. Catholic clothing played a small but important role in the medieval vision of the hereafter as a royal court, with the clergy casting itself as the powerful courtiers of a heavenly King and Queen, a vision that endures to this day. Indeed, the image of a crowned Virgin was perhaps the favorite of the featured designers in the Heavenly Bodies exhibition.

But Catholicism has also had a powerful counter-tradition concerning clothing that is largely ignored in Heavenly Bodies: clothing that was calculatedly anonymous, provocatively poor, or even totally absent. Rather than trumpeting status and might, Catholic “counter-clothing” actively attempted to thwart the vainglory of its wearers. For example, the Penitents, medieval lay confraternities dedicated to a panoply of good works sported not simply identical robes but also peaked hoods that completely covered their faces, ensuring their members would act from true goodwill, rather than indulge an unseemly thirst for earthly renown.

Perhaps the most extreme example of Catholic “counter-clothing” is holy nudity itself. Certainly, the velvet Versaces and diamantine Diors of the show create a strong visual dissonance with the medieval gallery’s other dominant image: an almost naked man in the throes of a torturous death. Particularly in Michelangelo’s powerful renderings, images of a nude Christ remind their viewer that he is the “second Adam,” come to return all humanity to the beatific, sinless time before the Fall.

Popular traditions around Jesus’s best-known female follower, Mary Magdalene, also involve nudity: painting her as an ascetic cave dweller, clothed only in her own long hair. And, famously, St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, repudiated both his fortune and his future by publically stripping naked to serve the naked Christ. It is thus no coincidence that, in taking the name and purported agenda of this iconic saint for his own, Pope Francis has also made noticeable (though thankfully less dramatic) sartorial changes to his own papal wardrobe. Out are the gold-and-carmine stoles and handmade shoes of his predecessors; in are unfashionable glasses, worn footwear, and an uncompromisingly stark metal pectoral cross.

Perhaps predictably, then, given the show’s nature, Heavenly Bodies thus focuses on Catholicism’s pomp, rather than its poverty. Both the central exhibit, with its designer fashions, and the smaller show of papal “bling” exhibited in the Met’s Costume Institute, stress Catholic (or Catholic-inspired) magnificence. Despite the contributions of Catholic “counter-clothing” to the shaping of the faith, then, there is nary a penitential hair shirt or patched Franciscan robe to be seen. One cannot help but suspect that, had Pope Francis offered to loan any of his personal possessions to the exhibit, they would have been rejected as too dowdy.

But the show is subversive in other ways, particularly in its overwhelming femininity. Though it is likely due to a fashion industry that targets the female consumer rather than a deliberate political statement, the omnipresence of female figures in the show—imagined, variously, as venerable, angelic, clerical, and powerful—is nevertheless provocative, given the enduringly patriarchal nature of Catholicism. Moreover, lest these female phalanxes fail sufficiently to impress themselves upon their viewer’s consciousness, several pieces make the point more explicitly, such as the “bishop” gown John Galliano designed for Dior in 2000. Catholic liturgical vestments have, of course, routinely been caricatured by their Protestant and secular detractors as “feminine.” But Galliano’s audacious, if straightforward, adaptation of traditional episcopal regalia to a woman’s body, with its smaller shoulders and waist and fuller hips, shocks perhaps more than it should in 2018, and shows how off-base this hoary insult has been.

The exhibit, then, apes the traditional magnificence of Catholic dress, even as it adopts many of Catholicism’s spatial conventions. For example, its entryway “ambulatory” of po-faced mannequins are elevated high overhead on plinths like iconic statues or ascending saints. Ultimately, however, this is a reflection devoid both of relationality and of specificity. While exhibitors’ use of blandly monochrome mannequins is understandable—these are, after all, mere human-shaped clothes hangers rather than Catholic icons—their mute, perverse uncommunicativeness highlights, in its very absence, the powerful emotionalism of traditional Catholic statuary. No child rests in the slender arms of these unformed Madonnas. No martyr’s palm or virgin’s lilies are grasped in the hands of these identical saints. No animals—ox or ass, lion or eagle, lamb or dove—twine about their immobile limbs or “photobomb” the viewer over their shoulders. Though dramatically dressed, expertly lit, and hypnotically serenaded by an intense and throbbing musical score, these dumb figures cannot save or soothe, awe or frighten. All they can do is mutely display their wares.

Not only do these bland beings fail to engage their viewer, they also refuse to encounter the other faceless denizens of their artificial world. Displayed alone, or in simple rows, the show’s mannequins abstain from communion with one another, even as they deny encounter to their audience. Thus, though Thierry Mugler’s 1984-85 ivory-dress, gold-wing ensemble, seen to the left in the image below, self-consciously imitates the smiling angel in Bernini’s (in)famous sculpture, “St. Theresa in Ecstasy,” Theresa herself is missing, as is the instrument of passion, the arrow, in the seraph’s hand. From being, in the original, a profound, provocative reflection on the rapturous, erotic nature of submersion in divine love, shorn of its relational context what remains is only an expensive and fanciful evening ensemble.

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

Only in one instance does the emotional frigidity of this display strategy succeed: in the most visually stunning of all the clothing inspired by the “Catholic imagination”—Pierpaolo Piccioli’s 2017-18 long, red silk taffeta dress (seen in the image above). Why does this deceptively simple piece—a deep crimson-red dress, with a deeply cut neck on a monochrome female mannequin—work so well?

In addition to its indisputable beauty, the piece benefits from its multivalence. Red means many things in Roman Catholicism. There is the hierarchical red of the cardinal’s robe—the same opulent, luscious shade of scarlet, shot through with cherry, used by Piccioli. Seeing it on a woman (and the daring cut of the neckline highlights, rather than negates, its wearer’s femininity) makes the same point as Galliano’s “bishop” dress, but far more subtly. Piccioli’s gown brings to mind the legend of Pope Joan, a mythical ninth-century female scholar who, so it was said, successfully cross-dressed her way into a monk’s education and eventually the pontificate before being unmasked by an inconvenient public birth. In a silent rebuke to a tradition that has long considered Joan’s legend as a disgrace (when it has deigned to remember it at all), this dress portrays spiritual power and femininity in completely compatible terms. Piccioli’s red can be read as a call to the Vatican to reopen a loophole closed just over one hundred years ago to allow the non-ordained to serve as cardinals of the Church (meaning that women could theoretically serve in this position).

Galliano’s blood-red is also the color of martyrdom in Catholicism. Aware of its moral sway, prominent victims have long contrived to appear at their executions in crimson as a political, theological statement. Mary, Queen of Scots wore red to her beheading by Elizabeth I, wordlessly presenting herself as a true Catholic martyr blamelessly killed by a usurping heretic harpy. Charlotte Corday, the French counter-revolutionary condemned for her assassination of Marat in his own bath, walked up the steps to the guillotine in screaming scarlet for much the same reason. When viewed as a martyr’s robe, the deep décolleté of Piccioli’s gown grows poignant, as its loose neckline evokes the baring of the victim’s slender neck to the executioner’s blade.

More unexpected in our twenty-first century world, long accustomed to the familiar white and sky-blue regalia in which St. Bernadette envisioned the Virgin, is the color’s earlier strong association with the Mother of God. Before the nineteenth century, the Virgin Mary was typically depicted in a deep red dress (often topped by a deep blue mantle): its blood color an oblique reference to her son’s coming self-sacrifice. Even with her newborn in her arms, then, the visual cue of crimson—and the Virgin’s typical expression of sadness-in-joy—prefigures his inevitable death. Moreover, in a medieval painting displayed close to Piccioli’s gown, the Mother and the Son of God together intervene to implore his forgiveness of humanity’s sins by displaying tokens of their suffering for humankind. On the left, Jesus displays his side-wound, medieval shorthand for his crucifixion. On the right, Mary bares her breast, symbolizing her suffering maternity as the mother of a God-man destined for death. In this context, then, the sweeping neckline of the gown is less sexy than sacramental.

As a religious studies scholar, I was sheepishly aware whilst at the exhibit that I was one of a distinct minority in being more interested in the medieval Catholic artifacts on permanent display than in the proto-Catholic fashions that had temporarily alighted, like exotic tropical birds, among them. But I enjoyed watching how the waves of eager, incoming pilgrims of fashion successively displaced others onto the spatial periphery with me, forcing them to encounter reliquaries, monstrances, ex-votos, and other objects of Catholic devotional and sacramental practice, as they waited once again to storm the beachhead of these primary objects of their desire. As I watched, two teenaged girls acted out the Annunciation in a “selfie”: imitating, as best they could, the poses of the statues of Gabriel and the Virgin behind them. Couples idly argued about the meaning of a dove-shaped incensoir, meant to represent the Holy Spirit, with one airily opining, “Everyone knows that the dove symbolizes peace.”

Informative? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Churchlike in its spatial arrangements, subjects, and music? Sort of. But by presenting only one pole of the Catholic duality of pomp and poverty, display and devotion, Heavenly Bodies is the Catholic tradition in a fun-house mirror: prompting gazes less awestruck than acquisitive, less ascetic than aspirational.