Enchantment and embroidery: Heavenly Bodies at the Met

Capturing (not just) the Catholic imagination

Anne Holler
June 7, 2018 - 17:37

The Met’s new show curated by The Costume Institute has only been open for a short spell, but judging from the crowds and press coverage the event has captured more imaginations than just Catholic ones. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination explores how fashion has been influenced by religious imagery and the costumes worn through the centuries by the clergy and religious orders, but there’s far more going on here. The visitors at the Fifth Avenue Met and The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park are both awed and delighted at seeing fantastically garbed mannequins in the company of medieval sculptures, sarcophagi and tapestries. The art and architecture come alive with the unexpected appearance of richly and even eccentrically dressed figures. The haute couture costumes are given a setting and a context that enhances their dignity.

Tiara of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1854. German and Spanish.
Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations
of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City.

For visitors, the experience is heady: etherealness meets whimsy. The words that Andrew Greely, Catholic priest, sociologist, and prolific novelist, wrote in 2000 are the inspiration for this show: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But those Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.”   

Catholic enchantment is what you’ll find in the exhibition. The Vatican has sent over 40 objects, including vestments, miters and a pair of red loafers worn by Pope John Paul II. This must-see collection is displayed in the monastic minimalism of The Costume Institute below the main floor.


Loredano Apolloni (Italian, 1957–2016). Shoes of John Paul II
(r. 1978–2005), ca. 2000–5. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office
of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy,
Vatican City.


The Medieval and Byzantine Art Galleries are staged as a theatrical installation. For starters, Peter Morgan’s hauntingly regal theme from Netflix’s The Crown floods the hall and blends in with the changing light that filters like shafts of sun over the sculptures, tapestries and mannequins clothed in impossibly opulent gowns. The center of the hall is dominated by a figure garbed in a sumptuous gold-embroidered version of a bishop’s robes designed by John Galliano for the House of Dior. Another mannequin is draped in a Christian Lacroix floral-accented wedding ensemble. And then there are the angels: one floating above the arched Romanesque doorway and to the left, with the backdrop of the Spanish rood screen, another celestial being in Thierry Mugler stuns in billowing ivory silk taffeta accessorized with gold-painted metal wings.

The Robert Lehman Wing is where you’ll find Florence fashion heaven: a bevy of celestial beings clothed in pastel gowns inspired by the 15th-century frescoes of Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco. Gowns of mint, melon and cream with dabs of crimson and rich tones of blue splashed with gold are a revelation to see together as a fashion statement. The central angel is inspired by Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy, a jolt next to dresses inspired by the frescoes of monks’ cells. Jeanne Lanvin designed the white silk chiffon gown to the far right and the blue silk crepe georgette dress at the far left. The designer, in her visits to Florence, was captivated by the decorative details of the clothes and colors of Fra Angelico. On viewing the painter’s Last Judgment, Lanvin took a fancy to a cape accented with gold strips worn by a haloed saint. Here we see the same design in the white gown of the angel at the right.


Loredano Apolloni (Italian, 1957–2016). Shoes of John Paul II
(r. 1978–2005), ca. 2000–5. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of
Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City.



An even more pronounced influence on Lanvin were the identical blue gowns worn by the two angels in Fra Angelico’s Saint
Dominic and His Companions Fed by Angels
, now in the Louvre. On the angel to the left of the lineup, we see the exact dress worn by the two angels in the painting. This dress was not the end of Lanvin’s interest in Fra Angelico. She was obsessed with replicating not only the Fra Angelico blue but also other colors from paintings that she loved. Founding her own dye factory in Nanterre allowed the stylist to experiment with just the right tones that she wanted for her creations. Over the very profitable years of the House of Lanvin, Fra Angelico blue has been a trademark detail in ribbons and, more recently, trimming on tuxedoes.

Bookended by the Lanvin creations are nine gowns by Rodarte that were created as a site-specific installation for the eighth anniversary in 2011 for Pitti W 8. The Fra Angelico colors are the emotional link to Florence. Then there are the teasing touches: Swarovski crystals, feathers, sequins, and gilded belts, headpieces and breastplates. “Laura and I have been deeply inspired by Florence and its artistic legacy,” Kate Mulleavy, the co-founder of Rodarte, commented. “We have spent countless hours dreaming of the poetic city, every detail magnified by our own curiosity and imagination.”

Heavenly Bodies continues to enthrall at The Met’s uptown branch, The Cloisters. Here, there’s another nod to San Marco’s artistic friar: the “Angelico” embroidery sample in the shape of an angel’s wing. Designed by Albert Lesage for Elsa Schiaparelli, the gilded wing studded with crystal and beads may have been an accent for a neckline or armhole.

The House of Dior, though, reminds us that not all was angelic in old Florence. Peering behind the half-opened door under a 16th-century staircase is a downright creepy, white-haired mannequin dressed in John Galliano’s full-skirted, blood red ball gown. Embroidered on the skirt in black silk thread and seed pearls is a 1532 portrait—hardly discernible with the poofs and folds of the dress—of Niccolò Machiavelli. Just when we thought we’d escaped politics for the afternoon.

 

“We have spent countless hours dreaming of the poetic city, every detail magnified by our own curiosity and imagination.”

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

The Metropolitan Museum of Art + The Met Cloisters
Until October 8, 2018

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