Once there was a man who wore the finest silks in Italy, but traded them all for sackcloth. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and in his youth he gamboled about Umbria in colorful, dandyish outfits. But when he had his calling he stripped off his fine clothes, pledged his body to God, and spent the rest of his life in a mendicant’s robe. He was Saint Francis of Assisi, and when the archbishop of Buenos Aires was proclaimed pope in 2013, he gave himself a new name, in honor of a man unembroidered.
I wonder what both Francises, saint and pontiff, might make of “Heavenly Bodies,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s colossal, hotly debated and richly anointed exhibition on the interweaving of fashion and Roman Catholicism. Years in the making, it includes exceptional loans of vestments from the Vatican — some of which have never before left Rome — and more than 150 ensembles of secular clothing from the last century. Here is papal regalia of unsurpassed intricacy, but also space-age brides, monastic couture, angels in gold lamé, and a choir up in the balcony dressed in head-to-toe Balenciaga.
For the 55 designers exhibited here, Catholicism is both a public spectacle and a private conviction, in which beauty has the force of truth and faith is experienced and articulated through the body. Sacrilegious? Heavens, no: The show is deeply respectful of the world’s largest Christian denomination, even reverential. But it takes communion at Fellini’s church rather than Francis’s — a surreal congregation whose parishioners express their devotion through enchanted excess.
“Heavenly Bodies” is the largest exhibition ever offered by the Met’s Costume Institute and was organized by its curator, Andrew Bolton. It runs from its dedicated downstairs hall to the Byzantine and medieval galleries and into the Lehman Wing; it then continues at the Cloisters, the museum’s serene home for religious art in Upper Manhattan. Most of the designers here were or are Catholics, including historical figures like Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent, and active designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Catholic Europe dominates; the United States is represented by Thom Browne (Mr. Bolton’s partner) and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte; but designers from Latin America, the pope’s old stamping ground, are dismayingly absent.
After Mr. Bolton’s rigorous left-brain exercises of the last two years — the excellent, tech-minded “Manus × Machina” in 2016 and the body-questioning retrospective of Rei Kawakubo last year — this show is a return, for better and worse, to the high spectacle of “China: Through the Looking Glass.” It goes heavy on the Catholic drama, with mannequins posed as angels and novitiates, and there’s music throughout. (Playing in the medieval sculpture hall is an intolerable loop of staccato string accompaniment, drawn from a film soundtrack by Michael Nyman, that will make you wish the Costume Institute would take a Cistercian vow of silence.) It also places the clothing amid the Met’s superb collection of Byzantine and medieval art — ivories, tapestries, reliquaries. This intermarriage of religious art and secular fashion feels refreshing in places, silly in some; either way, it’s an event.
“Heavenly Bodies” is, to use a formula Catholics will find familiar, both one show and three. You can begin your approach to this trinity of fashion with the showcase of holy vestments in the basement galleries, or you can start upstairs with the grand secular displays inspired by Catholic hierarchy and ceremony (the weakest third). Then conclude at the most contemplative, and strongest, third — the gowns evoking orders and sacraments at the Cloisters.
An Ecclesiastical Pageant
The exhibition’s presentation of secular clothing begins on either side of the Met’s central staircase, in the hallways devoted to Byzantine art. Five evening dresses from a recent collection of Dolce & Gabbana feature hand-sewn paillettes that cohere into icons of Mary and the saints, based on the mosaics of a Sicilian church. More inspired are Gianni Versace’s diaphanous dresses of gold and silver mesh, a signature material that the designer garlanded with crosses. He presented them for fall 1997: a season he never saw, as he was murdered that summer in Miami.
Versace drew inspiration from the Met’s 1997 blockbuster, “The Glory of Byzantium,” and these clingy sheaths set the stage for an encounter between religious art and clothes for the (rich and thin) laity.
In a gallery shaped like a Byzantine apse stands a Gothic haute couture gown by Jean Paul Gaultier — technically stunning but too gaudy to love — that incorporates holographic images of saints and aluminum panels decorated with eyes or hearts, like the ones ex-votos believers place in shrines. A mask of leather straps and cruciform plastic beads by the Belgian duo A.F. Vandevorst offers a rare dose of fetishism, though it is not half as fierce as the Met’s rosary from 16th-century Germany in the same case, composed of ivory beads half-face, half-skull.
Up here the restraint shown by the designers in the Vatican presentation gives way to ostentatious spectacle. Spotlights fall on a low-cut gown of red silk, designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino this year, flashing more skin than any cardinal would allow. The hall’s Spanish iron choir screen frames an eye-popping haute couture ensemble by John Galliano for Dior in 2000-1, with a beaded headpiece shaped like a bishop’s mitre. The back is embroidered with a crucifix and the inscription “Dieu est mon maître”: God is my master. (A male model wore this gown in Mr. Galliano’s presentation, though it was designed for clients of either gender.)
Yet those who feared that this exhibition might edge into blasphemy will be relieved to hear that it takes few liberties. Quite the contrary: Mr. Bolton, a Catholic, treats the faith so earnestly that he re-sacralizes the medieval art on display. His approach to the “Catholic imagination” treats the visual splendor of the church as more than just a poor man’s bible, but as a manifestation of God that inheres in all beauty, including fashion. Holy vestments serve in the transubstantiation of wine and bread into blood and body, and in a similar way these secular garments also turn the Met’s medieval collection back into objects of worship.
Anyway, if these designers are sometimes rule breakers, they are not apostates. In fact two gowns here, one by Saint Laurent and the other by Riccardo Tisci, are not for humans at all; they were designed as costumes for statues of the Madonna.
This decision to mimic, rather than analyze, the splendors of the church is highly uncommon for a museum, and bracing in places. One can see why Cardinal Dolan and other ecclesiastical figures have been pleased. The downside is that “Heavenly Bodies” pushes so hard on the senses here that you are forced to leave your art historical tools in the nave. How were these ensembles made? Whom did they influence? Those are questions for tomorrow; for now, let us pray to saints Cristóbal, Jean Paul and Raf.
Such a carnal approach to Catholicism also comes at the cost of critical engagement with the ironies of fashion — above all, with ironies of gender. It seems, almost always, that the transference of the “Catholic imagination” from sacred clothing to secular has to pass through a woman’s body. There is almost no men’s wear in this exhibition; one rare entry is a wool coat by Mr. Simons, inspired by a priest’s soutane. The angels clad in Lanvin and Rodarte inhabiting the final gallery are all women, too. This display may merit a thousand praying-hands emoji on Instagram this summer, but you might ask whether these designers have merely perpetuated the gender discordance of the church in a more colorful key.
The diplomatic and liturgical coup of “Heavenly Bodies” is in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, which features nearly four dozen articles of clothing and other regalia of recent popes, lent from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy. The church obliged the Met to keep the religious garments separate from the fashion objects, and they wanted a clean display, as the vestments are still in use. The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro delivered with a design of extreme restraint. Chasubles, mantles and tiaras appear in pristine cases, and entire walls are left white.
A glorious cope, or outer cloak, painstakingly made between 1845 and 1861 and worn by Pius IX, is laid flat like a grand, wearable semicircular tapestry; in its central gold shield is a dynamic nativity scene in embroidered silks of blue, pink and melon. A vision of Adam and Eve’s expulsion sits beneath.
Pius IX seems to have been a bit of a clothes hound, and of the many accessories in a smaller gallery — mitres, crosiers, rings, and a pectoral cross of gold and amethysts that would suit Cher — the most opulent are Pius’s three tiaras, festooned with rubies and sapphires. A German-made tiara here is ringed by three crowns comprising 19,000 stones, mostly diamonds.
These are awe-inspiring, though you need not be Martin Luther to look askance at their opulence. In the show’s catalog, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi writes that while “beauty and art have been the inseparable sisters of faith and Christian liturgy for centuries,” Catholics ought to recall Jesus’s warning, in the Woes of the Pharisees, not to make a show of your dress. No pope has worn a tiara since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s — unless you count Jude Law as the chain-smoking, archconservative “Young Pope,” who sported one for his terrifying investiture speech.
Where the clothing at Fifth Avenue draws on Catholicism’s rigid hierarchy and public rites, the Cloisters showcases fashion reflecting the quieter side of faith. It’s here you’ll find, in the reconstructed Spanish chapel, the show’s most famous ensemble: Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding gown, made of silk the color of ice milk and topped with an architectonic hood in place of a veil. Erroneously known as the “one-seam wedding dress,” this extraordinary garment appears to have been immaculately conceived rather than sewn. Here, too, the scenography is hardly subtle; the Balenciaga bride faces the apse as if in prayer, and speakers twitter “Ave Maria.”
But in general Mr. Bolton’s choreographed rendezvous between contemporary clothing and holy art of the past are more rewarding in the Cloisters’ tight confines, where one-to-one encounters come more easily. Precisely arced straw hats by the experimental milliner Philip Treacy appear as a mathematician’s response to the wimples of “The Flying Nun,” and sit in front of Netherlandish reliquary busts of female saints. A long black dress from 1999 by Olivier Theyskens, its bodice incised with a cruciform gap, stands between painted limestone statues of Saints Margaret and Petronilla. Near the garden is an extraordinary couture dress by Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli for Valentino; its metal-thread embroidery translates Cranach’s Adam and Eve, and its flora and fauna, into splendiferous ornament.
Mr. Bolton has made the unexpected and rewarding decision to place more than a dozen ensembles outdoors, in colonnades that ring the central cloister. Most outfits draw on monastic dress, including Mr. Piccioli’s elegant hooded dress of brown cashmere and Mr. Owens’ notorious (and rather stupid) sportswear robes cut out at the crotch. And there are older pieces, including an evening dress made in 1969 by the French designer known as Madame Grès, whose beige pleats are cinched by a brown knotted belt. Its inspiration is unmistakable: the habit of Zurbarán’s painting of St. Francis of Assisi, the rough brown cloth evoked through Madame Grès’s pilling angora wool.
His namesake gave a speech this September that is worth keeping in mind when you see “Heavenly Bodies,” in which he insisted that what is holy resides not in beauty alone. “I ask for the Church and for you the grace to find the Lord Jesus in the hungry brother, the thirsty, the stranger,” Pope Francis pleaded. And to find it, too, in “the one stripped of clothing and dignity.”
“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” Through Oct. 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.