The Metropolitan Museum of Art will launch its biggest Costume Institute collection yet on Monday. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, featuring couture from fashion luminaries like Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Schiaparelli alongside 41 pieces of ecclesiastical dress on loan from the Vatican, will explore the intersection of the sacred and the profane.
Engaging with Catholicism’s influence on major 20th- and 21st-century designers — many of whom were born and raised Catholic — the exhibit will, in the words of the exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton, “raise deeper — and even more provocative — contemplations about the role dress plays within the Roman Catholic Church and the role the Roman Catholic Church plays within the fashionable imagination.”
From 14th-century reliquary crosses to 19th-century papal miters, from a 2013 to 2014 Dolce & Gabbana gown inspired by Byzantine mosaics to a 2001 to 2002 Galliano gown modeled on papal dress, the exhibit will trace the development of a distinctly Catholic aesthetic from the sacred world to the secular.
But what exactly is the Catholic aesthetic? And what is it about Catholic theology that has created it?
The Catholic aesthetic is a “broad church”
To an extent, the Catholic aesthetic is like pornography: You know it when you see it.
It’s composed of, of course, specifically religious art, music, and architecture — Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame, Bach’s Ave Maria, the medieval German poem “Parsifal,” Bernini’s statue Ecstasy of St. Teresa. It includes the world of Catholic artists and writers whose faith was central to the themes of their work — writers like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor.
But it’s also an aesthetic we find in, say, the films of Franco Zeffirelli or Martin Scorsese. And it’s an aesthetic we often find subverted in pop culture, in the bloody, sexual, queer vampire novels of Anne Rice (an on-and-off Catholic convert), or in the highly erotic “cone bra” designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier for pop singer Madonna (who, down to her stage name, is another example of the trope) — hell, even the “Archie goes Grand-Guignol” TV show Riverdale.
These pieces of art, different as they are in media and perspective, have a few things in common. They’re all highly stylized and elaborate, characterized by grandeur, pomp, and pageantry. They’re often deeply sensual, even erotic. And they’re often extreme or paradoxical, focusing on collapsing binaries of sacred and profane, good and evil.
The Catholic aesthetic is so pronounced, after all, that the whole Protestant tradition arose partly in response to it. From Martin Luther onward, major Protestant thinkers have violently criticized what they’ve characterized as the “idolatry” or “superstition” or even “paganism” of the Catholic aesthetic. The 16th century, for example, was characterized by the “iconoclastic riots,” in which anti-icon Calvinist mobs would attack Catholic churches, smashing their stained-glass windows and statues in the effort to destroy Catholicism’s “idols.” Since then, the Catholic tradition has by and large, in contrast to the Protestant tradition, retained its highly visual, sensual focus.
So what is it about Catholic theology that leads to this aesthetic?
The Catholic Imagination lends itself to a sacralized world
One of the most important summations of the Catholic aesthetic was written by the priest Father Andrew Greeley, whose 2000 book The Catholic Imagination tried to codify the Catholic artistic perspective and what it was about the Catholic faith that lent itself so naturally to it.
“Catholics live in an enchanted world,” Greeley writes at the book’s start, “a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints, and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.”
The reason, he says, is deeply rooted in the idea of sacrament. While sacraments, taken literally, refer to significant and symbol rituals within the Catholic Church (like baptism, the Eucharist — communion — and marriage) that substantially change the individual’s relationship to God, Greeley uses the term even more broadly. The Catholic imagination, he says, “sees created reality as a ‘sacrament,’ that is, a revelation of the presence of God.”
In this way of thinking, all of reality is basically a “true” metaphor, a symbol of God’s presence in the world. “Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us.”
Just as during the Eucharist, the wafer and wine are understood to be both literal bread and wine and also the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ (that belief, known as transubstantiation, is not shared by other Western Christian traditions), so too, Greeley argues, does the whole world play a double role.
What that means in practice is that Catholic art and architecture alike are defined by this two-level consciousness. Within the Catholic tradition, elements of creation, from nature to human beings, are both themselves and signs pointing to the presence of God in the world. As Pope John Paul II put it in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”: “it is up to you ... who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation … is redeemed.”
The Catholic aesthetic divinizes the human being
In this worldview, ordinary human experiences become sanctified and made bigger, more significant, than they might first appear.
Greeley argues that the presence of saints and priests within the Catholic tradition — two forms of divinized and “sacred” human beings — also lends itself to a particular way of looking at human beings as sacred more generally. Often, he says, this manifests itself as a kind of willingness to see divinity in strangeness: “saints are perhaps a bit mad. God sometimes seems to display bad taste in the choice of His social loves.”
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that several great Catholic writers and artists are known for their “grotesques” — strange but arresting background characters. It’s a trend we see, for example, in the characters of Southern gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and A Confederacy of Dunces’ John Kennedy Toole, as well as in the often perverse, eccentric films of John Waters, who has frequently pointed to his childhood Catholicism as inspiration for his subversive work.
This aesthetic also lends itself to a visceral sense. The human bodies whose sinewy, rippling muscles are depicted in, for instance, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment exist in dialogue with the often intensely physical, visceral depictions of Christ on the cross we find in most Catholic churches. It’s impossible to separate the fleshly human body from Christ’s body. Depictions of one inform the other.
The Catholic aesthetic is inseparable from sex
That brings us, of course, to sex. From Bernini sculptures to Anne Rice novels, sex and sexuality — repression, transgression, sexual desire — are deeply intertwined with the Catholic aesthetic, in both secular and sacred contexts.
Catholicism’s views on sexuality are paradoxical. On the one hand, as Greeley points out, Catholicism treats marriage as a sacrament: Sexual love between a married couple is treated as a kind of mirror image of the love between Christ and his church, a love that is often described in Scripture and poetry alike in deeply erotic terms.
On the other hand, Catholicism has hardly been accepting of sexual expression outside that prescriptive mold, even as it has presided over a long and terrible history of clerical sexual abuse scandals. And the struggles of repressed sexual temptation have been part of the Catholic tradition since fourth-century St. Augustine begged God to “Make me good, but not yet!”
The “Catholic aesthetic,” therefore, is often deeply erotic, examining the power of sexuality as a force for both good and evil. Medieval authors like Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross would often frame their encounters with God as sexual ones. John wrote of one such encounter, how “when the breeze blew ... as I parted his hair, it wounded my neck, with its gentle hand, suspending all my senses,” while St. Teresa of Avila writes of a vision of being dramatically pieced with a saint’s golden spear that “left me completely afire with a great love of God.”
While Madonna’s famous cone bra and “Like a Prayer” Catholic-meets-erotic look were, in fact, subversive, they also exist as part of a long line of quintessentially Catholic works that explore the overlap of eroticism and faith.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Catholic aesthetic, for a variety of reasons, has also had a lot of overlap with the queer aesthetic, something noted by critic Hanson Ellis in his book Decadence and Catholicism. Artists Botticelli and Caravaggio, writers Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams, the erotic queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — a number of LGBTQ Catholic artists have fused queer and Catholic imagery into their work.
Frederick S. Roden and Patricia Juliana Smith, authors of Catholic Figures, Queer Narratives, explore possible reasons for this. One reason, they speculate, is that the sacramental and liturgical nature of dealing with sin in the Catholic Church — the idea that your sins can consistently and cyclically be purged through confession, penitence, and Eucharist — allows for an aesthetic of extremes: extreme sexual freedom followed by extreme penitence.
Fashion is the perfect medium for the Catholic aesthetic
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Catholic aesthetic is particularly pronounced in fashion, a medium that’s all about both celebrating the human body and covering it up, and all about dealing with extremes. Fashion’s pageantry, as well as its asceticism (it is, after all, an industry that largely demands punishing diets of its representatives), and its complex relationship with the human body, makes it an ideal medium for balancing the various elements of the Catholic aesthetic.
Consider, for example, some of the items on display at the exhibit. A cross-striated Versace evening dress from 2007 both turns the body into an icon — the cross takes up the entire dress — and tightly hugs the figure, accentuating its curves. The body is both more sacred and more fleshly.
Meanwhile, a virtually shapeless Viktor & Rolf cape from the 1999 to 2000 season seems modeled on the shroud of Turin, burying the body in waves of brown fabric, even as colorful jewels peer underneath — evoking at once death and rebirth.
Although much of Greeley’s Catholic Imagination deals with famous artists and writers, he sees this Catholic aesthetic as permeating Catholics’ everyday life as well. Why should that everyday life not include fashion?
“There is,” he says, “a correlation between the sensibility of Nicholas of Verdun, Bernini, St John of the Cross, Hopkins, Greene, Scorsese, Vermeer, and Mozart on the one hand and ordinary Catholic laity today on the other.”
But we should also not forget, among those names, Dolce & Gabbana, Gaultier, or Versace.