I guess I’m an outlier among conservative Catholics—but I loved this year’s Met Gala, the $30,000-a-head annual fundraiser and fancy-dress ball designed to benefit the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme corresponded to that of the Met’s new exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination—a collection of some 42 vestments and accessories from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel sacristy, plus Catholicism-inspired contemporary garments designed by raised-Catholic couturiers from Coco Chanel to Gianni Versace, whose posthumous Versace Institute headed by his sister, Donatella, was one of the sponsors of the exhibition.
The gala itself, on May 7, drew a vast array of Hollywood and music-business celebrities, many of them dressed in their—or, most likely, their favorite designers’—idea of what the Catholic Church is all about. Yeah, entertainment types aren’t known for their religious acumen or historical sense, and the costumes, especially those of the men, tended to range from clueless to sub-clueless. The prize for the most ridiculous male outfit surely goes to the heavily bearded Jared Leto, who came attired in a silky royal-blue hipster suit with black velvet lapels so wide that the 1970s tied up the phone lines calling to want them back. (The suit is attributed to Gucci, but surely the Gucci house has issued an official dissociation by now.) Leto also sported a heavily embroidered ankle-length liturgical stole and an elaborate brow-circling gold diadem that looked like a cross between Jesus’s crown of thorns and a 1980s aerobics headband.
The most ridiculous of the females was surely that devout Catholic, Rihanna, attired in a massively embellished silver bishop’s miter and matching ankle-length “cope” and strapless minidress (Maison Margiela is the villain of the piece for that couturial atrocity). Or maybe the prize ought to go to Katy Perry, who sported an eight-foot-high pair of feathery wings that one internet wag said made her look like a giant chicken.
Most Catholic observers have pronounced the mishmash of Catholic iconography, coupled with the general tendency of female attendees to display perhaps too much décolletage (via plunging necklines) and thigh (via skirt-slits), as downright blasphemous. “The Met Gala cowards would never have dared do this to Islam or Judaism,” British journalist Piers Morgan wrote for the U.K. Daily Mail. “Shame on them for lampooning Catholicism.” At CatholicCulture.org, Phil Lawler wrote: “[T]he celebrities were mocking the faith—or, at the very least, exploiting religious symbols for their own amusement.” Here at First Things, senior editor Matthew Schmitz wrote that the gala evidenced a “carnival atmosphere” at which “[m]en in Thom Browne suits and women with Chanel handbags admired a bondage mask draped in rosaries and gawked at mannequins dressed in papal drag.”
The bondage mask was pretty offensive, but it was an outlier. What most of the attendees were paying homage to—what they associated the Catholic Church with—was gilt, sumptuous fabrics, intricate embroidery, ornate jewel-work, and centuries of richly figurative religious art. Not for them the stripped-down post–Vatican II Church, with its felt banners and bare concrete altars, its priests in Crocs and nuns in pantsuits, and the cantor standing up there at Mass belting into the microphone yet another verse of “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near.” And certainly not for them the ostentatious-seeming simplicity of Pope Francis, who can’t get his papal soutane to fit properly. What these entertainment-industry folks wanted was the real thing: crucifixes and saints’ statues, silk-brocaded and cut-velvet vestments, brilliant colors, liturgical pomp, and the Church’s tradition, dating to its earliest centuries, of ornamenting everything in sight with precious stones, metalwork, and holy images, from the exteriors and interiors of church buildings to the clergy’s festal clothing. And though some of the stars looked silly, I don’t think they were being ironic. Most of the women’s cross-adorned dresses were elegant and imaginative.
Lana Del Rey’s cream-colored Gucci gown, sporting a breastplate of the heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by seven swords, was a near-replica of the statues of Our Lady of Sorrows dressed in hand-sewn clothing that can be found in Catholic churches all over the Hispanic world. Other women showed off images borrowed from Catholic artists ranging from Velázquez to Tiepolo. Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker appeared in the glorious tight-bodiced, long-trained gowns of the Renaissance’s Catholic queens. The female royalty and nobility of the Renaissance festooned themselves ostentatiously with jeweled crosses that expressed their piety, of course—but also their wealth and status.
Those who interpreted Parker’s glamorous headdress—a jewel-encrusted Nativity scene—as mockery might want to look at some of the genuine liturgical garments and headdresses that the Vatican lent to the Met for the Heavenly Bodies exhibition. They include such items as a chasuble belonging to Pope Pius XI, embroidered with scenes from the life of St. Francis; a nineteenth-century deacon’s dalmatic showing Christ carrying His cross in tapestry; and a miter bearing a Crucifixion image that appears to be done in silver, with gold-thread embroidery. As for women’s garb, during the Middle Ages women wore at their belts the biggest and most expensive rosaries they could afford. The wealthiest among those ladies commissioned gorgeously decorated and illustrated prayer books and psalters to carry about—the Birkin bags of their time.
Some conservatives also complained about the edible rosaries that candy designer Mayaan Zilberman created for the gala out of molten sugar. But the edible beads and crucifixes hardly seem scandalous in view of certain traditional Catholic devotions: the Baby Jesuses that Catholics from Barcelona to New Orleans bake into their “king cakes” for Epiphany; Easter cakes shaped like the Lamb of God; and minni di virgini, the breast-shaped pastries that Sicilians bake for the feast of St. Agatha, who was martyred by having her breasts torn off. Indeed, as photos show, Zilberman’s glassy rosaries were genuine things of beauty, crafted with care and artistry.
What the Met Gala attested to was a longing for beauty, among even the most boneheaded of the secular, in an age in which “high art,” the kind you are supposed to spend millions to acquire, consists of a steel balloon dog or a dead cow preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. The power of beauty—in music and the arts—to lead souls to God was central to the theology of Pope Benedict XVI. “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes,” he wrote in 2002, before he assumed the papacy. It’s not surprising that a crew of celebrities became enthralled for a night with the exquisitely crafted lace and brocade and gemstones with which the Catholic Church until just yesterday adorned herself and magnetized her adherents.
And they are hardly the first. At the end of the nineteenth century, a movement of French and English aesthetes—writers and artists—became known as the Decadents, because their works and their personal hedonism reflected their disgust with what they regarded as a staid and self-satisfied bourgeois society. The Decadents were fascinated by the lush trappings of fin-de-siècle Catholicism, which matched their own sensibilities—and they reveled in them in ways that ranged from the superficial to the obscene. Then, lo, some of them found themselves genuinely drawn to the faith. Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a satirical novel, À rebours, about an upper-crust dandy who collected church furnishings among his roomfuls of curiosities. A few years later, Huysmans returned to the childhood Catholicism he had abandoned. Aubrey Beardsley illustrated—quite raunchily—the English translation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which turned the beheading of John the Baptist into a fantasy of kinky sexual desire. Both Beardsley and Wilde converted near the ends of their short lives, Wilde on his deathbed.
This is why I can’t be too hard on the neo-Decadents of the early twenty-first century who celebrated Catholicism at the Met in their own way. Who knows what effect their exposure to the material beauty of the faith might have on them, and on the watching world?
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.