The Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ exhibition takes inspiration from Catholicism

Fashion as a religious experience might be a feeling only the most devoted New York Fashion Week fans are familiar with, but with its latest exhibit the Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking to change that.

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” — the largest exhibit in the museum’s history — invites visitors on a pilgrimage spanning more than 100 city blocks, from the museum’s Fifth Avenue spot uptown to The Cloisters, and encompassing 25 galleries and 60,000 square feet.

On show, dozens of iconic couture from designers famous for evoking religious iconography — Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana to name a few — appear along fashion creations more subtly-influenced by Catholic costuming and ritual.

“Most of the designers featured in the exhibition were raised Catholic. And while many of them no longer practice, and their relationships to Catholicism vary considerably, most acknowledge significant influence over their imaginations,” curator Andrew Bolton said at a press preview on Monday. “On the surface, this influence is conveyed through their reliance on explicit Catholic imagery. On a deeper level, it is conveyed through their reliance on storytelling, specifically the trope of metaphor.”

Artworks in themselves, the ensembles are presented throughout the museum’s medieval galleries in its Fifth Avenue building, among historical items of inspiration, including bejeweled crosses and gilded chalices dating to the 15th century. Modeled on mannequins with peacefully contemplative faces, these “heavenly bodies” can be spotted eerily floating throughout gallery spaces.

Visitors are immersed even further into the theme at The Cloisters in upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, where fashion creations are presented within rebuilt medieval French monasteries. A 1967 Balenciaga wedding gown is found bathed in ethereal light alone by an altar. Dresses created with the imagery of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” from Japanese designer Jun Takahashi, hide between trees across from the compound’s real life delectable gardens.

It can all be quite overwhelming to take in, but even non-religious people ought not to miss the papal vestments on loan from the Vatican, displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center in the Fifth Avenue building. Eighteenth century mantles threaded with gold, diamond-encrusted brooches and bejeweled tiaras remind visitors of the centuries-long artistic expression of the religion — and its astonishing material wealth.

If you go: ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ is on display May 10 – Oct. 8 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. and The Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Dr., Fort Tryon Park, metmuseum.org