The Pontifical Council for Culture chose to collaborate with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York because of the Met’s significance to culture and potential global outreach, but officials were unaware of the widely criticized gala that took place on Monday night. 

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council, had been wanting for some time for the dicastery to focus on the relationship between fashion, art and faith, and so agreed to collaborate with the exhibition, which opens May 10 and runs until Oct. 8.

“We wanted to be involved, and those behind it had good intentions,” a Vatican official told the Register. “As the Met is one of the most significant cultural institutions in the world, and our remit is to engage the world, we see it as important.” 

But the Vatican was unaware of the Met Gala and that the evening event would be used by some celebrities to dress up in a way deemed by many to be a sacrilegious mockery of the Church. 

The gala “crossed a line and was openly, brazenly disrespectful,” wrote Piers Morgan, a Catholic talk-show host, of the star-studded event, which included pop singer Rihanna dressed up as a provocative, sequinned pope and actress Jennifer Lopez wearing a jewel-encrusted multicolored cross. “By doing so, [the Met] confirmed itself as an organization of rank double standards, because everyone knows they'd have never dared do it to Islam or Judaism.”

The Met Gala is the annual curtain-raising event for its summer exhibit, this year called “Heavenly Bodies — Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The display will feature “fashion and medieval art from the Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.”

The Vatican has loaned 40 priceless items that serve as the “cornerstone” of the display, including “papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican.” 

The Pontifical Council’s involvement dates back to the latter half of last year. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, a fashion magazine, says she had the idea but struggled to attract the Vatican’s interest, sending many emails but never receiving a response.

“I’m stubborn; everyone knows that,” she told La Repubblica May 8, and so she wrote handwritten letters and turned up in person. The exhibition curator, Andrew Bolton, a Catholic himself, also made several attempts, Wintour said, including enlisting the support of the Vatican Museums and Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the Pontifical Household (although reliable sources say this is not true and that Archbishop Gänswein merely told them he did not have the competence to offer the help they needed). Eventually, the Vatican granted them permission to borrow the exhibits.

The Jesuit magazine America played a role in persuading the Vatican to take part, arranging meetings between Archbishop Paul Tighe, secretary at the Pontifical Council for Culture, and people in charge at the Met when Archbishop Tighe happened to be visiting New York last October. 

 

Local Church Backing

But work towards putting on the exhibition was already underway: One of the Council’s consulters, Italian fashion designer Lavinia Biagiotti, had already made inroads into organizing it with Cardinal Ravasi. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, had also already given it his backing. The support and engagement of the local Church was said to have been crucial in giving the Pontifical Council confidence to go forward with its collaboration. Jesuit Father James Martin, America’s editor-at-large and consulter to the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, is also understood to have played a role and, along with Cardinal Dolan, attended Monday’s event.

But council officials saw the gala as a “stand-alone event” and took little notice of it — indeed, most knew nothing about it until this year. For them, the exhibition was the main focus, and they noted that organizations such as the Sheen Cultural Center also had events connected with the exhibition planned. The council also insists it has received no financial rewards for loaning the exhibits, although the Met may have paid for some restoration costs.

But this was not the limit of Vatican involvement: The Sistine Chapel Choir, made up mainly of boys aged 9-13, performed at the gala for the assorted, provocatively dressed celebrities at the request of the organizers: Wintour and the Met. 

“We were contacted by them after the tour we did last year in the U.S.,” said Michelangelo Nardella, the Sistine Chapel Choir’s administrator. “The official invitation came through Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York, who was present at the gala and who probably helped to take care of other aspects of the event.”

Nardella said he believes the exhibition is “exclusively” linked to the Catholic world and in particular the Vatican and the papal sacristy. “In this way, our presence fit well with the exhibition, and that’s what the organizers strongly wanted,” Nardella told the Register, adding that he believed it would be “difficult for this to happen again in the future.”

He said the choir would continue doing what it always has: performing concerts in cathedrals or theaters and bringing the “message of peace, ecumenism and evangelization.” After last year’s historic tour to the U.S., the Sistine Chapel Choir will be returning to American shores for a series of concerts in July (see tour dates here). 

But concerning the gala, the Vatican generally played down its significance as the work of a few provocateurs. “For those who wish to make publicity stunts, to draw the most attention, I always say it’s better to ignore them,” said one inside source, noting that these days the faith and art do not have the easy relationship they once had. “Let’s just say I’m happy the gala is over.”

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Cardinal Ravasi wrote the following for the exhibition catalogue:

On Priestly Garments

Card. Gianfranco Ravasi

 

When I put on my cardinal’s robes or the sacred vestments for liturgical celebrations with Pope Francis, my thoughts often turn spontaneously to two divergent sets of images. One is the sculptor Giacomo Manzù’s powerful Cardinali, a series of more than fifty figures he created from the late 1930s through the late 1950s. Manzù’s stately cardinals, whether seated or standing, large or small, are truly imposing (fig. 1). Cast in bronze or carved of stone, their pyramidal forms culminate in the peak of a mitre. The figures, each cloaked by a simple yet majestic cape, are engaged in mystical meditation, immersed in contemplation of a timeless horizon. In stark contrast is the satirical and grotesque runway show of clerical fashions depicted by director Federico Fellini in an exhilarating sequence of his film Roma, from 1972 (fig. 2). By that time Pope Paul VI had already vastly simplified the sumptuous cardinalate garb, for example cutting off the long tails of the cardinal’s cape, but Fellini’s caricature of clerical ostentation serves as an effective counterpoint to the grandeur of Manzù’s cardinal figures. From the solemn to the superficial, these images capture the full spectrum of the possibilities of sacred dress.

Liturgical vestments, like other objects dedicated to worship, are a veritable mirror of the historical phases of the Catholic Church. Indeed, clothing and material goods in general reflect their time and place; as Honoré de Balzac wrote in his Treatise on Elegant Living (1830), “Clothes are the expression of society.” They are effectively its self-portrait. Garments do not merely protect us from the cold and heat or from nakedness, although these perfectly legitimate functions are recognized in the Bible, when God at the dawn of humanity “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). But, as is clearly demonstrated in the creative world of fashion and is suggested by the linguistic connections among the Latin vestis (clothing), “vestment,” and “investiture”—a word indicating an appointment to an official position—clothing, through its symbolic dimension, also belongs to and expresses its culture.

The forty or so articles of clothing and sacred ornaments from the Vatican presented in the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition and this accompanying catalogue are rightly classified under the category of “Catholic imagination,” as the subtitle recites. The wide range of objects shown includes a vast array of sacred paraments such as copes, chasubles, dalmatics, stoles, albs, episcopal mitres, papal tiaras, zucchettos, fascias, pectoral crosses, rings, and crosiers, as well as chalices and monstrances used in Eucharistic celebrations. The selection is indubitably sumptuous, a quality that was exalted during the Baroque period but has characterized liturgical ornamentation of the following centuries. Such opulence was intended to proclaim the divine transcendence, the sacred detachment of worship from daily ordinariness, the splendor of mystery.

That was not always the case. In the beginning, the ecclesial community met kat’ oikon, “at the home” of the various Christian families, as Saint Paul often recalls (for example, in Romans 16:5). In these modest settings, the table where lunch was served became the Eucharistic table. Until the fifth century, the ministers apparently wore ordinary clothes, albeit festive ones—not daily attire or military uniforms—and used simple glass chalices. Ecclesiastical clothing modeled on the vestments and decorations of the imperial order emerged later. Then began the long, complex, and rich development of sacred “fashion,” which reflected the tastes of the era and conferred upon every garment, even the most minor, a symbolic value. The latter conforms to the Pauline example (Ephesians 6:11–17), where the apostle deploys terms of military gear as spiritual metaphors: the armor of God, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes in readiness to spread peace, the shield of faith, arrows of evil, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Well before Paul, the Old Testament gave ample space to the subjects of priestly garments and the decoration of the holy tent of the covenant between God and Israel, the mobile sanctuary used during the march through the Sinai Desert and a prefiguration of the Temple of Zion in Jerusalem (Exodus 30–31, 35–40). These passages provide detailed prescriptions for making sacred vestments and objects, a project entrusted to an artist named Bezalel. To carry out his work, he was filled “with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft . . . [and] every sort of work done . . . by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen” (Exodus 35:31–35). Bezalel’s inspiration was thus not only artistic but also divine, just like that given to the prophets.

With respect to rituals and the Christian liturgical apparatus, it is worth recalling Jesus’ admonition against purely external shows of observance; he criticized worshipers who for appearances’ sake “make their phylacteries broad and the fringes long,” referring to the tefillin and the tallit of Jewish practice (Matthew 23:5). Indeed, there remains in sacred ritual the risk that the English writer William Hazlitt highlighted in his essay “On the Clerical Character” (1818): “Those who make their dress a principal part of themselves, will, in general, become of no more value than their dress.” However, beauty and art have been the inseparable sisters of faith and Christian liturgy for centuries, especially in Catholicism and orthodoxy. And—as Henri Matisse’s marvelous mid-twentieth-century chasubles for the chapel of Vence, now conserved in the Vatican Museums, demonstrate—the bond between beauty and faith continues to revive and renew itself through a dialogue with contemporary art.”

This article has been updated to include mention of Archbishop Georg Gänswein and the Vatican Museums.