- The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (2018)
He had a special passion, also, for Ecclesiastical vestments, as indeed he had for every thing connected with the service of the Church. In the long cedar chests that lined the West Gallery of his house he had stored away many rare and beautiful specimens of what is really the raiment of the Bride of Christ, who must wear purple and jewels and fine linen that she may hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering that she seeks for, and wounded by self-inflicted pain.—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)1
Western culture, indeed Christian thought, is often characterized (or caricatured) as suffering from a pathological dualism, a failure to integrate material and immaterial. Body and spirit are the stuff not only of mysticism, but the very heart of the neoplatonic near-Manichaeanism of St. Augustine: a world of shadows and realities, tangibles and ineffables that cannot be reconciled. In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, partnering with the Vatican, took on these long-held suspicions of dichotomy, monsters of myth in thought, by querying and indeed queering materiality. In a stunning and opulent presentation, curator Andrew Bolton and a host of characters brought together the material world of fashion and the Catholic Church with the sanctity of meaning behind the forms. In a praiseworthy success, this exhibition demonstrates the creative legacies and afterlives of Catholic symbol and thought. Heavenly Bodies (an oxymoron referring back to matter and spirit) redeems the genre and cultural production that is fashion as a serious art form as well as a means for [End Page 204] expressing theology. In this regard, as this article for QED will demonstrate, there are a number of blind spots in the curation of such a large-scale exhibition that can only push that breakthrough so far. In my analysis here, I will show the limits of a popular examination of this intersection in a critical light. Doing so hardly fails to appreciate the breadth of what has been accomplished in both the aesthetics of the Church and the holiness of the experiences of bodies. At the same time, my concerns point toward how far we still have to go in approaching these issues.
Heavenly Bodies is centered at the flagship Fifth Avenue branch of the Met, in which works of fashion by contemporary (twentieth-and twenty-first century) designers are juxtaposed with Byzantine and medieval works of art. The one thing they all have in common is representation of Christian iconology or iconography in some way. A secondary exhibit at the Costume Institute in the Museum showcases treasures of Vatican sacred vestments, plus some small items. But the real whopper is an easily missed portion of the fashion aspect, staged at the uptown Cloisters, that allows a sensitive interplay between medieval culture and modern/postmodern vernacular arts (in clothing and premodern devotional items). My article is equally trinitarian, as I approach Heavenly Bodies through several portals. First, I seek to provide a theoretical context for considering the scandalous intersection of religion and the body, here with a particular focus on sexuality and queerness. Second, I analyze the critical apparatus the Met has published to explain their work. Finally, I offer the reader a walk-through Heavenly Bodies using the lenses I have developed. Although sexuality and LGBTQ studies may be a particular strategy for approaching these questions of religion and the body this show poses, they prove useful for appreciation of both the strengths and weaknesses of what the Met—and the Vatican—has done.
Rose Macaulay’s novel of spiritual pilgrimage, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), opens with the sentence, “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”2 Catholic excess, Roman or Anglican, embodies the paradox of the open secret: the obvious, almost gratuitously outrageous (yet totally serious), contradicting absurdity coexisting with a hidden and enclosed reality. Indeed, this is the essence of sacramentalism: an outward visible sign of an inward invisible truth...