NEW YORK, NY -- Wonder and awe, splendor and magnificence. This is what the Met’s current exhibition, Heavenly Bodies - Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, inspires. The show provides “a dialogue between fashion and masterworks of medieval art in The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.” The fashions and jewels are a wonder to behold, and a reflective view for all.
Nestled inside the Met Cloisters and the Met Fifth Avenue’s Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art, the Medieval Galleries, and the Robert Lehman Wing, lies a careful curation by Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Met’s Costume Institute and the man behind past mega-shows such as Savage Beauty and China: Through the Looking Glass. On the first Monday in May, the buzzy Met Gala precedes each of these openings and not only provides the funding for the Costume Institute, but has turned into one of the most anticipated fashion events of the year. The celebrity attendees dress to theme, and offer the public a preview of the spectacle inside.
Meandering through the halls, the exhibit intertwines with the museum’s impressive Byzantine and medieval collections, providing an interesting juxtaposition between the aesthetics of artifacts and reliquaries that have withstood hundreds of years of wear, and the couture fashions of Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and many others. Nearly all of the fashion designers featured also hold deep ties to Catholicism, and the influences in their designs are a wonderful interpretation of their art and faith, becoming one.
Downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute, the exhibition is paired with a collection of 42 important ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel’s sacristy at the Vatican, kept separate from the high fashion designs at the request of the Vatican. The collection spans 15 papacies from the 18th to early 21st centuries, and has never been seen outside of the Vatican until now. Rich and intricate vestments, mantles, tiaras and oversized brooches that have adorned the bodies of the highest prestige at the Catholic Church astound the viewer at the extravagance of it all.
A gemstone is beautiful, durable and rare, these characteristics naturally lend them to be adorned on the bodies of the powerful and often wealthy. Clothing is but a necessity, but accessories exist purely to inspire interest. In the case of the adornments of the papacy, they are made to inspire reverence. These jewels worn by Popes preceding the 1960s, act as a blessing on the wearer, and raise them higher in the eyes of the Church. Often gifts of royalty, they not only elevate the wearer, but the donor as well.
Inside the closed room of the Vatican’s collection are front walls lined with oversized brooches and plaques, including one composed of rich gold and silver, centering a flying dove radiating rays studded with rose-cut diamonds. Accented by rare emeralds, sapphires and rubies, this piece is meant to be worn and admired from a distance. Adjacent to this is one perhaps even more extravagant – a brooch completely encrusted with diamonds, centering the name of Pope Pius XIII mounted in sapphires and topped by a tiered crown and key motif. It is religion and regality all at once.
The crowning jewel of the exhibit is the Tiara of Pope Pius IX, who reigned from 1846-1878 (see above). This was a gift from Queen Isabella of Spain, and was worn by the Pope at Christmas Mass in 1854. Weighing an astounding three plus pounds, the tiara contains 18,000 diamonds, and 1,000 gemstones and pearls. It is a wonder to behold, glittering from every angle.
While the collection displays the highest jewelry and adornments of the papacy, religious jewelry for the non-clergy has a history and popularity just as long. Iterations on the crucifix form, doves, lions, and other personifications of Catholicism are worn on the hands, wrists and neck commonly as an outward demonstration of one’s faith.
The Met’s Heavenly Bodies provides a rare viewing of not only the fashion of and inspired by the Church, but of the tremendous adornments the papacy wears. The splendor of these jewels, while not personally worn by any of the clergy today, still inspire reverence. It is a chance to see the Church in all its splendor.
On view through October 8, 2018
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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New York City