The so-called Beast from the East or Burian polar vortex sweeping in from Russia blanketed Rome with snow on Monday, creating havoc in the Italian capital where schools were shut down and incoming traffic via railroad and by air was delayed by hours, but the press preview of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” took place as scheduled at the city’s Baroque Galleria Colonna. The exhibition will juxtapose fashion and masterworks of religious art so that patrons will consider fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.
“In Italian fashion, religion has always had a strong influence on creativity and the imagination, reflecting its importance to our history and culture,” said Donatella Versace, who is supporting the exhibition and attended the preview with Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour. “Catholicism was part of my upbringing, as well as that of my brother Gianni. Religious festivities formed the backdrop of our daily lives, and we were inevitably inspired by the power of their symbols and imagery. Over the years, Catholic icons have embellished many of our groundbreaking collections, appearing on prints and in embroideries and handcrafted, gemlike crystals. Gianni’s use of such images was never literal. Nor was it profane. While he often juxtaposed religious symbols with something provocative, his intention was to make people stop and contemplate their wonder.”
The designer said the Costume Institute was “renowned for presenting unexpected points of view. This year’s exhibition aims to construct a dialogue between fashion and religion by highlighting the influence of Catholicism on the imagination throughout history. By providing an in-depth look at fashion’s ongoing engagement with religious practices, it promotes a more profound appreciation of the act of creation and its myriad forms of artistic expression.”
She emphasized how the sponsorship of this exhibition “exemplifies Versace’s enduring commitment to supporting art, fashion and creativity and to nurturing a new generation of talent.” She noted that the commitment was particularly important to her this year, as the Versace brand celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, referred to the headline of a Newsweek article in 2005: “The Pope Wears Prada,” which described Pope Benedict the XVI’s sartorial predilections — although his shoes were made by Adriano Stefanelli, a cobbler from Novara in northern Italy. “More significantly, they belong to a papal tradition that dates back centuries. Their color signifies the blood of Christ’s Passion as well as the blood of Catholic martyrs.” Bolton said the story “raised deeper and more profound considerations, namely: the role that dress plays within the Catholic Church; and the role that the Catholic Church plays within the fashionable imagination.” These subjects, he said, form the basis of the exhibition. “Some might consider fashion to be an unfitting or unseemly medium by which to engage with ideas about the sacred or the divine. But dress is central to any discussion about religion — it affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, it asserts religious differences. While religious dress and fashion are two distinct entities governed by different systems of knowledge, both operate as a visual language, relying on subtle visual codes to perform specific functions and to express complex ideas about identity. In the Catholic Church, dress not only distinguishes hierarchies but also gender distinctions in much the same way as it does in society in general. Beyond semiotics, religious dress and fashion — at least in terms of their presentation — are both inherently performative. There are distinct parallels between a fashion show and a church procession. Typically, both follow an orderly and regulated arrangement; both involve active and passive participants; and both are accompanied by music.”
More than 40 papal vestments and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy will be featured in “Heavenly Bodies.” The pieces range in date from the mid-18th to the early 21st centuries and encompass more than 15 papacies. The earliest is a mantle worn by Benedict the 14th, and the latest is a pair of red shoes worn by Saint John Paul II. Several of the pieces have never been seen outside The Vatican. These vestments and accessories will be exhibited in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. They will be shown separately from the fashions in the exhibition — around 150 designs, mostly women’s wear — which will be displayed in the Byzantine and Medieval Galleries alongside religious artworks selected by Griffith Mann, curator in charge of the Department of Medieval Art. In total, the exhibition spans 25 galleries, making it the largest and most ambitious exhibition The Met has ever undertaken, Bolton said. “Its organization is intended to evoke both the concept and the experience of a religious pilgrimage.”
In the Byzantine Galleries, visitors will see examples from Gianni Versace’s fall 1991 and fall 1997 collections inspired by the glittering micro-mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Donatella Versace revisited these collections in her spring 2018 collection as a tribute to her brother and her designs will be shown alongside those of Gianni’s.
In the Medieval Galleries, the focus will be on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and one of the centerpieces will be a red, silk taffeta evening dress from Pierpaolo Piccioli’s fall 2017 haute couture collection for Valentino, inspired by the great cape or worn by cardinals for solemn liturgical occasions, as well as a chasuble designed by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for Saint John Paul II.
There will also be ensembles by Thom Browne and Isabella Jardini for Moschino that reference the white-winged cornette of the Daughters of Charity, made famous by Sally Fields in the “The Flying Nun” from the Sixties.
In the Robert Lehman Wing, the fashion is inspired by the cults of saints and angels, a theme emphasized by a dress by Elsa Schiaparelli embroidered with the “Keys of Heaven.”
Garments inspired by Catholic religious orders will be exhibited at the Met Cloisters, with designs by Madame Grès, Claire McCardell and Cristóbal Balenciaga, including a wedding dress by the latter from his fall 1967 collection.
The exhibition bows to the public in New York on May 10 and will run through Oct. 8. The Met Gala will take place on May 7, co-chaired by Wintour, Amal Clooney, Rihanna and Donatella Versace. Blackstone founder Stephen A. Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, will serve as Honorary Chairs.
The exhibition is being made possible thanks to the Schwarzmans and Versace, as well as through additional support from Condé Nast.
The Met’s deputy director Carrie Rebora Barratt; The Costume Institute’s curator in charge Andrew Bolton; His Eminence Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi; Pierpaolo Piccioli, Thom Browne; de Castelbajac, and Wintour attended the press preview for the warm-up event at Galleria Colonna.