NEW YORK — The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is stepping into the religious fray.
The title of the department’s blockbuster 2018 fashion exhibition will be “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Stretching across three galleries — the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the medieval rooms in the Met on Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters — and approximately 58,600 square feet, it will feature 50 or so ecclesiastical garments and accessories on loan from the Vatican, multiple works from the Met’s own collection of religious art, and 150 designer garments that have been inspired by Catholic iconography or style.
These range from the obvious (Versace and Dolce & Gabbana icons) to the more unexpected (a Chanel wedding gown inspired by a communion dress, Valentino couture gowns inspired by Francisco di Zurbarán’s paintings of monk’s robes). It will be the department’s largest show to date. It may also be the most provocative. And not just because of all the eye-rolling wordplay the title invites.
“Every show we do at the Costume Institute has that potential,” said Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge. “This one perhaps more than any other. But the focus is on a shared hypothesis about what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology. Beauty has often been a bridge between believers and unbelievers.”
So a Balenciaga one-seam wedding dress will be displayed in a chapel in the Cloisters dominated by an enormous crucifix; a Dolce & Gabbana mosaic piece from fall 2013, inspired by mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, will be set against the Byzantine mosaics of the Met’s collection. The point is to connect the dots between material expression and sourcing.
Yet juxtaposing the sacred and the profane at this particular moment in time, when the Catholic Church is rived with internal disputes between conservatives and liberals, and religion around the world is being weaponized and politicized, is a risky move. Especially in a city that is home to a significant Catholic population.
Especially at a museum that recently underwent its own kind of crisis of faith, after the former director Thomas P. Campbell resigned under pressure in February for not being able to control a ballooning budget deficit, and his president, Daniel H. Weiss, was promoted to president and chief executive — the next director answerable to him. No matter how nuanced the actual curation, it could easily devolve into a popular cause célèbre.
“We have confidence that the exhibition will inspire understanding, creativity, and, along the way, constructive dialogue, which is precisely a museum’s role in our civil society,” Weiss said.
“We know it could be controversial for right wing or conservative Catholics and for liberal Catholics,” said Bolton, who noted he had consulted with representatives from different Catholic groups, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, to identify garments that could be incendiary. “There will always be viewers who want to reduce it to a political polemic.”
But Bolton said he had not removed a single garment from the exhibition because it had been flagged as a potential lightning rod.
Bolton had been thinking about doing a show on the connections between fashion and religion for years — since “the culture wars of the 1980s,” he said — but only became serious about it at the Met around two years ago. At that point, he had conceived it as an examination of the five world religions represented in the museum’s collections (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam).
But after designer Rei Kawakubo announced that she was ready for her retrospective last year, he postponed the project, and later decided to more narrowly define his topic, in part because he found that the majority of Western designers (and there are only three non-European or American-based names in the exhibition) were engaged in a dialogue with Catholicism. Perhaps because, as Bolton noted, so many Western designers were raised Catholic, including Elsa Schiaparelli, John Galliano, Riccardo Tisci, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Norman Norell, Thom Browne, and Roberto Capucci, among others. (Bolton is also Catholic.)
He began conversations with the Vatican in 2015; the loan came from the Sistine Chapel sacristy Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, as opposed to the Vatican Museums, since it involves garments still in active use. (They date from the mid-18th century to the papacy of John Paul II.)
The Vatican garments will be separated from the rest of the fashion in the exhibition, out of respect for the fact that they are still working garments and, presumably, to defray criticisms that could incur if a visitor were to see, for example, a sacristy robe next to a Jean Paul Gaultier dress with a chalice embroidered over the breasts.
Less has been done, seemingly, to defray the idea that Bolton’s definition of “fashion” is definitively Western. Save Isabel Toledo, who is Cuban-American, there are no South American or Latin American designers in the show, for example, though it is hard to imagine that no one else from that continent engaged with Catholic iconography. Challenged on the subject, he said he hoped to expand his purview in a future exhibition.
In any case, Bolton has been here before: In 2015, his show “China Through the Looking Glass,” became the fifth-most-visited exhibition, despite accusations of skating over the surface of the issues it raised, underscoring for him the importance of tapping into the broader conversation. He followed it up with “Manus x Machina,” which examined the role of technology in fashion (and which became the Met’s seventh-most-visited show); and then “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” the Costume Institute’s first retrospective of a living designer since 1983. Though it was widely praised, Kawakubo is a less obviously buzzy choice, and the show and the attendance were smaller.
Which may partly explain why the museum decided to roll the dice with this show. The last time this many Vatican garments made their way across the ocean, in 1983 for “The Vatican Collections,” the exhibition became the third-most-visited in museum history, with 896,743 attendees.