NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” closes Oct. 8. It has been one of the most successful in the venerable museum’s history — and it contains an enduring lesson for the Church today.
The exhibition — as distinct from the Met Gala evening that provided some distractions upon its launch in early May — was the largest ever staged by the Met, at more than 60,000 square feet in 25 galleries over three locations at two sites.
It attracted more than 1 million visitors, becoming the third-most-popular exhibition ever at the Met, behind the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” (1978-1979), which had more than 1.3 million visitors, and “Mona Lisa” (1963).
“Heavenly Bodies” drew more visitors to the Met than any other exhibition in more than 40 years. I was one of them and I hope that there were many other priests and lay Catholic leaders on hand too, for the Church has three lessons to learn — or better, to remember — from the Met exhibition.
The first “remembering” is of our own Tradition, which the Met exhibition made more visible than can usually be seen in great cathedrals or even the Vatican. The exhibition was marvellously done, with every detail carried off with great skill and precision. From the music that accompanied visitors through the galleries to the layout of the galleries themselves, everything was redolent of our Catholic Tradition. Many of the fashion pieces themselves paid tribute to traditions of clerical and religious dress that have been entirely abandoned.
The descriptions of the items were striking. Well-researched and accessibly presented, they often were explaining aspects of Catholic Tradition that the typical Catholic would no longer know. Sometimes the Met curators were more traditional than the Church is, noting that “the essential garment for both daily and formal dress of the secular clergy is the cassock, or soutane.” In that regard, the Met exhibition was literally more Catholic than the pope, as today the Holy Father asks that his senior advisers, the council of cardinals, meet in business suits.
The second “remembering” highlighted by the Met is that the Catholic Tradition ought to be enchanting. The exhibition opens with a large panel quoting the late Father Andrew Greeley, from his book The Catholic Imagination:
“Catholics live in God-haunted houses and an enchanted world. In a world where grace is everywhere, the haunting and enchanting go on constantly. Clearly, the world of the great Catholic artists and writers is enchanted ... they see reality the way they do because they either grew up Catholic or were attracted to Catholicism as adults by virtue of its enchanting aspects.”
That so many designers — many of them distant from the Catholic Church, but alive to the spiritual dimension of all art, including fashion — would look to the Catholic Tradition of sacred painting, mosaic, sculpture, architecture and textiles, is a reminder that the Church is meant to enchant the world. The mission of the Church is not only to teach truths, or exhort better behavior, but to be in the world a gateway to another, more mysterious, realm of existence. Amid the massive, jostling crowds that made their way through the Met, it was easier to be pointed in an otherworldly direction than it is in a church of unimaginative or pedestrian design.
The third “remembering” offered by the Met was that beauty — both simple and ornate — is the Catholic Tradition, especially in the liturgy. The Church offers beauty not as an ancillary project, but as part of her essential mission. In that light, the special gallery dedicated to treasures from the Vatican sacristies was worth the price of admission alone. Yet to stand amid those treasures was to ponder the obvious question: Why have these items become literal museum pieces? Why do they remain in the papal sacristies instead of being employed in the ceremonial events of the Church?
Fair enough, the papal tiara given to Blessed Pius IX by Queen Isabella of Spain — covered in some 19,000 precious gems, most of them diamonds — does not lend itself to current usage. The bejeweled miter given to Pope Pius XI by Benito Mussolini to commemorate the Lateran Treaty of 1929 is marred by unpleasant associations.
But what about the vestments that belonged to Pius IX, Benedict XV and Pius XI? The copes, chasubles and dalmatics from those sets are masterpieces of art, design, embroidery and theology. The set given to Blessed Pius IX by the Habsburg crown took some 15 master artisans 16 years to produce in an Italian studio. I found myself beside two textile specialists, almost kneeling on the ground, faces pressed against the glass, squinting to better see embroidery of a quality that even today’s machines would be unable to achieve.
And yet, with those vestments sitting in the historic sacristy, Pope St. John Paul II arrived for the opening of the Great Jubilee 2000 in a modern cope so garish and hideous that it was banished, never to be seen again. The jubilee cope will never appear at a future Met exhibition. The biblical steward brings out of storehouse treasures both new and old (Matthew 13:52). Today, the true treasures are left in the storehouse, and the new versions are not treasures at all.
The exhibition was an introduction to an enchanted world for more than a million people. Catholics should be grateful to the Met for this act of remembrance. It should stand as an invitation to bring our Tradition out of the museums — sacred and profane — and back to the churches, where it was born and still belongs.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.