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Five reasons you need to see the Met’s new Heavenly Bodies exhibition

The Catholic-themed exhibition opens today

Following on from Monday night’s annual Met GalaHeavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination opens to the public at The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters in New York today. The largest exhibition in the museum’s history, the exhibition brings together two hundred years of costume and fashion in a monumental endeavour that spans 25 galleries and two buildings. And here, as if you needed any more encouragement, are five reasons to visit.


“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,” Andrew Greeley wrote in his book The Catholic Imagination. The mystical grandeur of the Catholic faith finds its way into every element of life, from its majestic cathedrals and monumental art to the understanding that the Holy exists throughout creation, in fashion, accessories, and religious vestments. As part of Heavenly Bodies, the Costume Institute brings together more than 150 ensembles from the early 20th century to the present day that illustrate how fashion, like religion, embraces the glory of beauty, goodness and truth in designs from Balenciaga, Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier that will take your breath away. 


Heavenly Bodies takes you on a journey that begins in the very heart of The Met Fifth Avenue and transcends the strictures of the traditional fashion exhibition. Here gowns by Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler, and John Galliano appear inside some of the museum’s most revered galleries to create a mesmerising visual dialogue with the sculptures, tapestries, and jewels of the Byzantine and medieval eras.

The exhibition continues to the Anna Wintour Costume Centre where 40 masterworks from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy are displayed – many having never travelled outside the Vatican before. Finally, the show concludes several miles north, at the highest point in Manhattan where The Met Cloisters is located. Here, the works of Catholic designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Madame Grès, and Claire McCardell are paired alongside the minimalist devotional aesthetic of monasteries. Be sure to wear your best walking shoes.


Speaking of shoes, Pope Benedict XVI was named “Accessoriser of the Year” by Esquire in 2007, after it was noted that he was rocking red Prada loafers and Gucci shades while riding in the Popemobile. The shoes, made by Adriano Stefanelli, a cobbler from Novaro, Italy, belong to a papal tradition that dates back centuries, with the red symbolizing the blood of Christ’s passion and the Catholic martyrs – as well as the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The exhibition notably includes a pair of red shoes made for Pope John Paul II, too.


Somewhere along the way you may forget whether you are in a museum and find yourself giving thanks to the Holy Spirit for divine objects like the 2008 gilet designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, which features crosses made of gilt metal, enamel, polychrome glass cabochons, clear and black faceted crystals, and mother-of-pearl–encrusted stones. This is the Catholic imagination at work. Greeley observed that it “tends to emphasise the metaphorical nature of creation… 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.”

This may also explain why you find yourself gazing reverently upon Jean-Paul Gaultier’s 2007 Myrrhe evening ensemble – a light blue silk jersey mousseline that floats above a massive arch – or slinking through the narrow Byzantine gallery halls, marveling at the row of columns high overhead where mannequins sport silver mesh Gianni Versace and beige organza Dolce & Gabbana dresses. At Heavenly Bodies, greatness is everywhere.


But it’s not just costume. Heavenly Bodies goes beyond fashion to fully embrace the pageantry of the Catholic imagination. In addition to the handcrafted crosses, clasps, rings, and tiaras that have adorned religious leaders for centuries, the exhibition includes The Keys of Saint Peter (Keys of Heaven), Given to Leo XIII in 1903. As part of a rite of papal coronation, each new pope receives a pair of gold and silver keys, symbolising his power to open the doors of heaven and earth. The symbol can be traced back to Saint Peter, the first pope, upon whom it was written Christ bestowed the keys of heaven, and when presented alongside the huge selection of fashion and religious art adds up to what can only be described as a celestial experience. What do you mean, you don’t have your tickets yet?

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters, New York, through October 8, 2018. A two-volume slipcased catalogue of the same name will be available through Yale University Press on May 29.