Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination


To me and many other lovers of art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is already considered our heaven on earth … or at least, a piece of heaven within Manhattan. On my latest trip to the museum, I realized heaven had come to us by way of museum’s newest exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Put on by the museum’s own Costume Institute, the annual exhibition always seeks to find the link between art and fashion as art. This year, the exhibit brilliantly celebrates the effect that Catholicism and Catholic imagery has had on the design, craftsmanship, and imagination of some of history’s most renowned fashion designers and couturiers.

The museum’s annual exhibition is always a blockbuster attraction for the cultural institution, and this year’s exhibit is no exception (they welcomed more the 500,000 people with in the first six weeks of its opening!). In fact, Heavenly Bodies is the largest exhibition the Costume Institute has ever put on, as it is spans two museums and dozens of galleries! The garments and accessories that are featured relate in some way to the religious objects and artworks within the Met’s permanent collection. In a brilliant curatorial twist, the exhibition has been installed within the existing galleries of the museum, which adds a great flair of drama to the experience of each visitor.

In a brief overview: at the Met Fifth Avenue, the Anna Wintour Costume Center features over 50 masterful works from the Vatican Collection (some of which have never been displayed outside of the Vatican before!). The Byzantine galleries display gowns that have been inspired by the interiors of Byzantine churches and cathedrals. The Medieval Sculpture Hall features attire that were inspired by the holy ordering of the Catholic Church. While the Cloisters display garments inspired by religious orders and the Seven Sacraments. You can also watch a wonderful short video about the overview the exhibit, given by the curator in charge Andrew Bolton, here. The exhibit does not offer an audio guide, but the museum does offer guided tours that are included with admission.

I began my visit to see the first half of the exhibit at the Met Cloisters (not that you’re supposed to! That’s just the way it worked out with my schedule). The Cloisters is such a special and beautiful place, being scenically located in Fort Tyron Park, at the very tip top of Manhattan. The museum specializes in medieval architecture, sculpture, and decorative arts, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods (which are some of my favorite architectural periods of history!). I have to say, that the architecture and setting of the museum is what really made my experience so special. The museum possesses many galleries of period rooms, some of which are complete chapels from Europe and South America. The architectural features within each room are also part of the museums permanent collection. There was church-like music playing throughout the galleries, that added a special reverence to the whole exhibit.

Each gallery held a different theme, and the method of display varied depending on the fashion that was incorporated within the gallery. For example, in the first of the “Sacraments” galleries, a single wedding dress that was designed by Cristobal Balenciaga was dramatically set within the roped-off Fuentidueña Chapel. Whereas within the Cuxa Cloister garden, there are eight dresses displayed together by various designers that were inspired by monastic orders of the Catholic church. Other themes of the galleries included the “Garden of Eden”, the “Sacred/Secular”, “The Crusades”, and the “Cult of the Virgin”, to name a few. Incredible ensembles by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and Thom Browne are featured within the galleries of the Cloisters.

Cristobal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga; Wedding Dress – Spring 1967. Set within The Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters.

As I meandered around the galleries and installations, I couldn’t help but feel profoundly moved by the notion that the Christian sect of Catholicism had had such a strong impact on these designers, that they chose to incorporate the imagery, symbolism, and stories of their faith into their work!

The following weekend, I was off to the Met Fifth Avenue for the main event! I am a member of the museum, and with membership comes some special perks and opportunities. In the case of my visit, I was allowed to bring a guest (I brought my mom!) to go into the museum at 9 am for “morning hours” to see the current exhibits, before the doors opened to the general public at 10 am. And this was the way to go … I was DYING being in the museum with so few people! If you are a museum member, I would definitely recommend waiting for the museum to offer morning hours again to see the exhibit this way. If you are not a member, be sure to get there first thing in the morning, but be prepared for large crowds any time of the day, any day of the week!

I began in the Byzantine galleries that holds the “Mosaics” segment, where dresses made by fashion houses Dolce and Gabbana and Versace are held (that were inspired by the mosaics of Byzantine churches, remember?!). There were five dresses displayed from each fashion house, set on opposing sides of the grand staircase, and are displayed on mannequins raised onto pedestals that are at least ten feet tall! This was a very interesting and unique curatorial choice, as I have never seen it employed in another exhibit before! Each dress was so incredibly detailed, embroidered, and sparkly, that your jaw couldn’t help but dropping a little! The D&G dresses are from the autumn/winter 2013–14 collection, and the Versace dresses are from Gianni Versace’s autumn/winter 1997–98 collection, which would end up being his final collection before his untimely death.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for Dolce and Gabbana – autumn/winter 2013–14

Moving along through the Byzantine galleries and into the Medieval galleries, the installations featured some incredible creations from Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, and Riccardo Tisci, as well as accessories from Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.

Into the Medieval Sculpture Hall I went, when I stopped suddenly with awe in the doorway. The Medieval Sculpture Hall is one of the largest galleries in the whole museum, so the sheer size of the space, combined with dramatic lighting, the gowns, and Ave Maria playing throughout the speakers … I had to pause and take it all in!! The Sculpture Hall features the “Ecclesiastical Fashion Show” section, and is anchored by three gowns that stand in the middle of the room. The first is an “evening ensemble” by Alexander McQueen for the House of Givenchy from the spring/summer 1999 collection; the second is a gown by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Maison Valentino that was inspired by the cardinals robes from the autumn/winter 2017-18 collection. The third is the pièce de résistance of the show is John Galliano for the House of Dior’s fanciful take on the Pope’s robes from the autumn/winter 2000-01 haute couture collection. In the wings of the Sculpture Hall are ensembles that have been inspired by religious uniform. Beyond the gorgeous choir screen from Valladolid Cathedral in Spain is the “Celestial Hierarchy” segment, which features gowns inspired by rankings of saints and angels. Other sections within the exhibit are “Treasures from Heaven”, “The Dressed Madonna”, and “Earthly Hierarchy”.

“Ecclesiastical Fashion Show” section in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Met Fifth Avenue.

And if you can believe it … the exhibit wasn’t over yet!!! There is one more section that is a part of the exhibition, and is in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. The Center features over fifty masterworks of religious regalia on loan from the Vatican Collection. Items like cope’s, papal tiara’s, and mitre’s that were made for and worn by popes over the last three centuries are highlighted here, and are so unbelievably detailed! When you’re in the Center, you must keep in mind that centuries ago in a mostly Catholic and devout western Europe, the Pope was ranked higher than any king – because he is God’s representative on earth, which is just one of the reasons it was thought that the Pope needed to be adorned in the most elaborate and detailed articles of regalia during ceremony. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in this section, so you’ll just have to go in and see everything for yourself!

For the past few years now I have seen the annual fashion exhibit, and they all have been wonderfully curated, beautiful, and inspired; but Heavenly Bodies definitely takes the cake as my new favorite! The exhibit was truly an experience, and was absolutely incredible; I would definitely go back! I loved how the Costume Institute really thought out-of-the-box in curating the displays by placing individual installations within the existing galleries, as opposed to having one dedicated gallery space that holds the entire exhibit that is most commonly done in special exhibits. But that couldn’t have been done anyway, because the display was so extensive! I enjoyed visiting the Cloisters, because I haven’t been there in recent years and loved going back, and I’ll take any opportunity to go back to the Met that I can!

Are you going to the exhibit?! Let me know in the comments below!


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Hi there, and welcome to Francesca the Curator where I share my love for art, travel, fashion, and everything in between.

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