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Editorial
‘Heavenly Bodies’ Exhibit Shines Light on Church

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” promises to be the major blockbuster exhibit this summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A production of the Met’s Costume Institute, the “Heavenly Bodies” show is promoted as a “dialogue between fashion and medieval art” and as a look at “fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.”

As Cardinal Dolan put it during a press preview earlier this week, “In the ‘Catholic imagination,’ the truth, goodness, and beauty of God is reflected all over… even in fashion.” 

The cardinal is certainly right about truth, goodness and the beauty of God as reflected by the Church.

From Christianity’s earliest days, Catholic artists—often with Church patronage—have created some of the most exquisite and influential works in the history of Western Art.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and Pieta sculpture and Raphael’s tapestries illustrating the history of the Church, for example, are among Vatican treasures recognized as masterpieces of High Renaissance art.

More recently, chasubles designed by the 20th-century French painter Henri Matisse are on display in the Vatican Museums, and modernist architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain, has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and brought calls for Gaudi’s canonization.

Fashion gets its turn at the Met exhibit, featuring 40 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican, including papal vestments and accessories such as rings and tiaras encompassing more than 15 papacies from the 18th to the early 21st century. The last time the Vatican sent a loan of this size to the Met was in 1983, for “The Vatican Collections” exhibit, which is the museum’s third most-visited show.

We think “Heavenly Bodies” will surpass that.

New York was a troubled city in 1983, struggling financially and just starting to recover from a long stretch of crime and urban blight, with tourism at a low point. That the Met attracted so many visitors to its Vatican Collections was indicative of the hope inspired by the Church and recognition of the beauty of Catholic expression in a dispirited city.

Like the earlier exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies” offers a rare opportunity to “engage a diverse and vast audience—Catholic and non-Catholic,” said Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Costume Institute.

In other words, an event organized by a major secular institution can be a fantastic platform for evangelization.

“Heavenly Bodies” was painstakingly put together by the Costume Institute staff over the last two years with the active involvement of the Vatican.

Stephen A. Schwarzman, a New York businessman and philanthropist, and his wife, Christine, were the major financial underwriters of the Met project and also were involved in organizing it along with Bolton and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue Magazine and a trustee of the Met.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who wrote the introduction to the exhibit’s catalogue, said there is a risk of seeming superficial in the use of ornate garb.

At a press preview of the show in Rome early this year before it moved to the Met, he said that liturgical vestments and ornaments are often crafted to exalt a kind of “richness” and opulence, and so it stands out from the everyday and the merely functional.

The ornate represents “the transcendent, religious mystery” because the divine is “splendid, marvelous, sumptuous, glorious,” he said.

“Heavenly Bodies” will run through Oct. 8 at two locations: in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and three other galleries inside the Met’s Fifth Avenue site, and uptown at the Met Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park.

Don’t miss it. It’s likely to be the hottest ticket in town.

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