Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Division
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.
The Catholic Church is in crisis and sex has divided it.
Somehow, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” couldn’t have more unintentionally shown this divide.
“The show is about Catholic symbolism and Catholic iconography, but it really is about how these designers and artists, raised Catholic, were impacted by that in their creative life, and how that has expressed itself in their works,” Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibit, told the Washington Post.
The Fifth Avenue portion of the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit is separated into two parts: the medieval gallery and the Vatican Collection. Hidden beneath the Egyptian wing, the Vatican Collection showcases pieces lent to the Met by the Sistine Chapel. St. John Paul II’s tunic and shoes are displayed. So are the vestments, scepters, and mitres (fancy pope hats) from previous popes.
A must see is an eerie but powerful mitre that was a gift from Benito Mussolini to Pope Pius XI. It’s holy, yet a dark presence lingers as one remembers the horrors of World War II.
The medieval gallery displays a heavenly fashion show, that processes through the center aisle.
“The designs on display in this gallery explore this ‘holy ordering’ through a cast of religious characters identifiable by their dress,” the Met describes.
It symbolizes the hierarchy of the church, starting with a representation of a priest (black), then a cardinal (red), a pope (white and gold), and finally a bride (white).
The piece representing the power of the cardinals shows a female mannequin in a red choir robe, with her chest exposed far more than any devout Catholic would like to see.
On one side, there are pieces inspired by the garments of those in clerical positions while the other side shows interpretations of the famous black-and-white patterns that come from the Dominican order.
Both parts of the exhibit show the divide in the Church that has erupted since the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out this summer, when Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote a letter that called Pope Francis to resign for allegedly lifting a ban placed on ex-Cardinal Edgar McCarrick and accused of knowing that this former cardinal was a sexual abuser.
This divide is over marriage and the Eucharist. Homosexuality is also a big part of this debate but it’s part of a larger discussion centered around the sanctity of sex.
Ever since Pope Francis came to power, conservatives have begun to fear that the Catholic Church is in crisis because Pope Francis had shown tendencies to relax certain teachings of the Catholic Church--with regards to marriage. To be specific, Pope Francis flirted with the idea that divorced and remarried Catholics should have the opportunity to receive communion.
The Church has said for 2000 years that remarried Catholics cannot receive communion, because they are in a state of moral sin.
On Aug. 11, 2017, dozens of conservative Catholic scholars and clergy claimed that Pope Francis was spreading heresy especially on “marriage, the moral life and the Eucharist,” the letter that they sent to the pope stated.
But why is this a big deal?
“John Paul II describes the Eucharist as the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride,” Christopher West said in his book, “Naked without Shame: A Crash Course in the Theology of the Body.”
The Mass is referred to as a “wedding feast” by countless theologians.
It’s communion with God, where Christ and the receiver become one body, one spirit in Christ. Sounds like marriage, right?
And what happens in marriage? That’s right--sex.
The altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of Vatican City where the Pope transforms the bread into the body of Christ, is built in the shape of a bed.
The canopy over the altar is called a baldacchino, which has been compared to the chuppah. In Jewish tradition, the chuppah is where the bride and bridegroom consecrate their marriage.
“In this context the baldacchino of Christian churches emphasizes the place where the bridegroom (Jesus) encounters his bride (the Church) and pledges his everlasting love,” Philip Koslowski describes in an article for Aleteia.
And then there’s this: the Met heavenly fashion show aisle ends with a bride, a wedding ensemble by Christian Lacroix, adorned with the sacred heart of Jesus, resting over her chest.
The bride is placed where the “Ecclesiastical Fashion Show” transitions into the “Celestial Hierarchy” section. This is where heaven and earth meet, at the wedding feast, or the Mass.
This shows with accuracy the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Marriage--or unity--with God is the ultimate crux of the faith, not the pope or any man in power.
So this is why conservative Catholics are angry. When marriage is a glimpse of what unity with God is, how can the Church ease its teaching on divorce? The Church can’t divorce God. Why should it allow its members to receive the most divine connection to God after they broke their own vows to their spouses?
This is where the Met comes in. To put it into perspective, imagine these conservative Catholics going through the Vatican Collection, adoring the beautiful imagery of Catholicism and beauty. It’s in an all- white room. The details and the attention put into the embroidery and pattern work is meant to bring the viewer into an experience that is just as good as the content it’s based on.
Then suddenly, they climb up the stairs and through to the Catholic-inspired fashion pieces. They’re shocked, disturbed, and their stomachs twist from what looks like a sickened version of their faith. For them, it’s a perversion. Walking into that room gives a glimpse into why conservative Catholics feel scandalized by Pope Francis. Where is the respect that is meant to be given to sex? Shouldn’t it be shared between intimate spouses and not shown to the world on display?
But the more liberal Catholics and admirers of Pope Francis may look at the Met’s fashion exhibit and feel as if it’s touchable, relatable, and inspiring. The fashion pieces on display are only surrounded by a twisted rope, hanging a foot above the floor. The Church is open for all, in this sense, and it’s aiming toward something higher. It’s a progressive Church, willing to adapt to the ideals of the modern world. When they head down to the Vatican Collection, it may seem too perfect. It’s shielded by glass in a serene white room, meant only for the saints and not for them. They can’t understand why people still want to stick to the same old way of thinking about sex. Where is the open-door church for homosexuals and divorced Catholics? Doesn’t Christ welcome all?
“Heavenly Bodies” has arrived at the right moment, showing how the Catholic Church grapples with sex and marriage. It shows how people can’t seem to agree on Catholic teachings and which direction the Church should be moving to. It allows you to explore the world views of both sides of the debate and does it through art and fashion. This show is a must-see to understand the complexities of the Catholic Church.
The exhibit ends on Oct. 8, 2018.