BBC Radio 4:Catherine Pepinster - 07/05/2018


Tonight one of the biggest events in New York’s social calendar, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gala ball, will be taking place. Guests at the ball usually take as a theme the current exhibition from the Met’s Costume Institute. This year it’s Heavenly Bodies, a show all about fashion and the Catholic imagination. People attending might well be wearing gowns akin to priests’ vestments or necklaces like rosary beads.

That influence is exactly the point of the Heavenly Bodies show, which explores the impact of devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism on designers, especially those brought up in it. Catholicism is certainly a very visual version of Christianity, deliberately so, for it emerged at a time when most people were illiterate and often too poor to go on pilgrimage. Instead they learnt about Christianity not only through hearing the Gospels read but through statues, stained glass, and frescoes. Even priests’ vestments would contain a narrative. For instance, an embroidery of bunches of grapes would refer to Christ’s words when he said “I am the vine, you are the branches”, and also be a reminder of him using bread and wine at the Last Supper. A vestment might also be embroidered with the letters IHS, a Greek abbreviation for Christ.

So the Catholic imagination of the title of the Met’s show refers to this rich heritage but it is something else too. According to the late American priest and sociologist, Andrew Greeley, the Catholic imagination sees everything in creation as a metaphor for God and discloses something about him. In that way creation brings God constantly into the world.

And yet some people might object to what is on show at the Met, thinking that precious artefacts like those leant to the exhibition by the Vatican would be better sold and the money given to the poor. And Christ certainly called on his followers to help the poor. But when a woman anointed Jesus with costly ointment and some objected, saying it should be sold off and money given to the poor, he said that the poor would always exist and it was right to honour him by doing something beautiful.

The Church still does so with many precious things, from crucifixes to vestments, created by skilled artists. The Catholic imagination then, does not just see God in creation but in what humanity also creates. It sees God in all things, in every day, rather than as a divine being ignored until Sunday. Or, as some people have said of Catholic faith, it is a seamless robe, a belief that should impact on every part of life. That’s certainly a metaphor that should make sense to fashion designers.

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