One of the centuries old-beefs between Catholicism and Protestants is the exact ordering of the Ten Commandments, and specifically, whether the clauses about putting God before all others and not making idols are one commandment or two. For Catholics, it’s one; Protestants frequently see these as two (and subsequently lump coveting your neighbor’s wife and neighbor’s goods into one clause). I suppose this is a little understandable, since the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy both provide the Commandments in slightly different orders. Anyway, Catholics tend to de-emphasize the literalness of the idolatry clause, emphasizing that God and the sacred can be portrayed in art as long as the art doesn’t become a substitute for the real thing.
It’s for this reason that Catholicism has tended to produce a good chunk of the world’s sacred art, and consequently, why Catholic Churches tend to lean towards having more outward portrayals of the sacred while American Protestantism leans towards stripped down simplicity. This is a matter of taste for some. As for me, I’ve been taught that this relates to our physicality: God created us as souls and bodies.
Unlike Yoda’s philosophy that we are luminous beings and not crude matter, Catholicism says: oh, no: we are quite the crude matter. We’re human, and our humanity makes us physical beings that touch and taste and smell and are designed for interaction via the sensory and the tangible. It’s the difference between knowing you love someone and actually being able to hold them: yeah, the former is theoretically possible, but there’s a world of difference between the abstract and the latter.
Anyway, on Monday this week was the annual New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala, the museum’s big, annual event which brought out tons of celebrities to raise awareness and funds for the museum. This year’s event revolved around the Museum’s new event, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which showcases fashion in Catholic clothing—liturgical, of course—from across the centuries to the present day and has actual exhibits from the Vatican. Cool, right?
Well, then there’s the whole matter of the celebrity ball at the Met Gala, where everybody from the Kardashians to Tom Brady decided to appear in Catholic chic. Based on what I viewed on Twitter, my reaction was something like “Glaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh.”
I’m not particularly worked up enough to make a “cultural appropriation” comment. I actually like seeing my religion spread, so if you’re a non-Catholic who wants to try out some Catholic culture, be my guest. (Fried cod and french fries are great.) My reaction is more grounded in bad taste: seeing Rihanna dressed as the Pope at an event attended by the Archbishop of New York comes off like pink flamingos on your lawn. You can do it, sure…but in context, yech, man. I won’t go so far as to say this was insulting to Catholics. We get worse from half an hour of a Family Guy episode. It’s more that these Met Gala outfits severely missed the mark of how Catholic art and design works.
Here’s the deal: Catholic art is intended to engage the viewer, to provide a sensory experience which connects the individual with the divine to the maximum extent possible in our limited human world. (You don’t have to believe in the divine here—I’m just trying to communicate how this works for us.) Take a Cathedral, for example. Those of you in the Washington D.C. area might check out the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University for a great example of this. The Basilica is a massive building, capped by a dome, that is nothing but art, art, art from top to bottom, and all of it focused on the sacred. The main church is a massive room, fronted by a colossal image of the risen Christ. Between the immensity of the room and the blast of the pipe organ, you really get the feel of standing before the heavenly host when a service commences. It’s not the real thing, but that’s the kind of sensation it’s intended to trigger.
Point being, Catholic design is intended to point exclusively to the divine, to engage us in a sensory experience that points us to a God that is larger than us. The Catholic-chic garb showcased at this week’s gala, uh…didn’t do that.
So, here’s my problem from a Catholic art critic perspective: the gala outfits make for an impressive-yet-cheap imitation of the style being honored at the Met by turning the intention of Catholic design on its head. Rather than honoring God, the outlandishness of the outfits turn themselves back on both the wearer and the outfit itself. That’s…their choice, but again, in poor taste when the theme of the event is Catholic design choices itself.
Let’s take Rihanna’s “Papal” outfit, for example. Yes, yes, Rihanna is fabulous and she is the Pope of all she surveys. I get that. The actual Papal outfits are not intended for this. In Catholicism, the Papacy is an office, not a person. We love our Francises and our Benedicts and our John Pauls, but inherently, we recognize that these are still mere men who are not long for this world. Popes come and go. The more serious aspect of the Papacy comes from the fact that we trace it back almost two thousand years to Peter the Apostle himself, appointed by Christ to carry on the Church after Jesus left this world. The Papacy, to us, is the enduring presence of Christ’s gift to the world of ongoing stewardship of the Church. If we dress up our Pope, it’s because we recognize the sacredness of an ancient, divinely appointed institution. It’s the divinity of the office, not the person or the clothes, that we’re supposed to respect.
We’ve got Lana Del Rey dressing up as Our Lady of Sorrows. This is one of the many, many titles applied to the Virgin Mary, one of the most sacred figures in the Catholic Church. The title specifically references how a very human mother watched her very human son suffer—per prophecy—multiple times in his life, knowing full well that this had to happen to him. To us, this is an act of the beautiful love of the mother of the divine as she watched her son face a horrifying death. To Del Rey, I guess it’s reduced to an…Avant garde fashion statement? This, again, misses the mark, and a month after the Holy Week of Easter, to boot.
I could go on and on about this, as the general theme of the night seemed to be “garish parod of Catholicism.” It got old and kind of laughable after awhile. Jared Leto dressing up like Jesus, I’m not even sure I can comment on. I’ll take the Joker back over this. As a friend of mine pointed out, he looks like “the Burger King of Kings.” Bleah.
I’ll at least give credit to Zendaya’s outfit, which was transparently themed on Saint Joan of Arc’s armor and kept things just this side of tasteful. This one, in my opinion, stayed below the threshold of outlandishness and makes for an interesting talking point. It’s recognizably Joan of Arc and might lead to, I don’t know, discussions of her life story and her bravery in standing up to an invading army.
Riverdale‘s Cole Sprouse and Solo‘s Donald Glover stuck with just a tux, letting the event be about the event and not trying to mug the camera themselves. Good for them.
Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman went for something halfway between a tux and a priest’s vestments. I’ve seen worse among other attendees. B+.
Overall, I can’t get worked up enough about the Met Gala to be angry, because much of it is just silly and misses the point of sacred art. I’d hope that, on a positive end, the viewing audience might take the time to look at the imitations that appeared at the Gala and become curious about the real thing. The outfits that appeared at the Met Gala are, after all, a flash and bang event that lasted one night. The art which inspired it continues to exist in museums and churches around the world, and will long outlive the shock and awe of some Twitter posts.
You don’t have to agree with the religion, but you do have to recognize that Catholicism’s influence on art has been profound and lasting, and even from a secular standpoint, there’s a reason for it. Maybe use the Met Gala’s wackiness as an opportunity to learn some art and cultural appreciation.