By THOMAS MOODY
The overwhelming success of the Fashion Institute’s 2018 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Met Cloisters—Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination—illustrates the enduring influence the Catholic Church exudes among the arts.
What most shocked viewers of the exhibition—which placed 21st-century high-fashion pieces amid medieval religious art, artifacts and garments, including more than 40 religious masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, some of which have never before left the walls of Vatican City—was not any stark juxtapositions between the vastly divergent eras, but rather the seamless congruence of the two. To walk through the wonderfully curated rooms of the Met or the Cloisters was to enter into a dialogue that spanned more than 600 years of thought, design and craft.
The Catholic Church has long been known as the most ornate of Christian denominations. This predilection for the adorned over the austere has lent itself well to the arts. It is, of course, the home of some of the greatest names in the history of Western painting and sculpture, including Giotto, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Francisco de Goya and Rodin. The Church’s centuries-long record as a leading patron of the arts has ensured the posterity of its influence. Artists throughout the centuries have not only borrowed, imitated and subverted, say, Michelangelo’s technique or style, but also his themes. The symbolist movement of the late 19th century, for instance, took the language of the great Catholic frescos of the Last Judgement and reconceived them in a context that established Hell not as a literal place of punishment, but a wellspring of imaginative treasures.
Beyond patrimony and endowments, what fuses Catholicism and art so intimately is the commonality of concerns that run through both worlds: the mystery of creation, the notion of inspiration, the evocation of the numinous. Indeed, in January of 2017, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, highlighted the importance of the connection between art and faith, stressing that it was essential for priests to understand the esthetics and history of art.
“Imagine a church that is built in a refined manner, that expresses a profound beauty,” Cardinal Ravasi told the Catholic News Agency, “and to find inside this space the possibility of silence, and contemplation, that is, it is the eyes that see. Because faith is made, most of all, of contemplation.”
While painting and the fine arts have long since moved on from the devotional, there has been a recent trend in popular entertainment of Catholic concerns’ creeping into story and plotlines. Two television shows airing this fall—CBS’ God Friended Me, which made its series debut on Sept. 30, and NBC’s The Good Place, now in its third season—deal with the longstanding Catholic notions of how we can “know” God and the nature of the afterlife.
More explicit in its Catholic references, and perhaps more controversial, was 2016’s The Young Pope, in which Jude Law, directed by the great Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, plays a handsome, arch-reactionary, diet-coke–swilling and cigarette-smoking pope who struggles with his own faith in the existence of God. Central to the show’s narrative is the question of the existence of miracles, a distinctly Catholic belief, and if they can occur in an ever-modernizing world, which seeks to solve all mysteries and excise all enigmas. It is a theme the author Graham Greene famously addressed in his novel The End of the Affair.
The Young Pope was criticized for its perceived anti-Catholic stance by some Catholic reviewers, who cited its profane comedy and cartoonish representation of the Church. Other reviewers, however, recognized in the show’s mockery of the institutional machinations of Catholicism not blasphemy but an admiration for authentic devotion.
Sorrentino would not be the first artist to incorporate the profane into the sacred. In his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century painter and historian, tells of Pope Paul III’s unannounced visit to the Sistine Chapel while Michelangelo was nearly three-quarters finished with his Last Judgement. The pope, who had come to check on the fresco’s progress, was accompanied by Biagio da Cesena, “a person of great propriety” and papal master of ceremonies, who was asked, in the presence of the painter, what he thought of the painting. Biagio answered loudly that he was “appalled by the nude figures being tortured in Hell—that they should show their nakedness so shamelessly.” It was a work not for a chapel, Biagio opined, but a brothel. Michelangelo, infuriated by the commentary, took revenge on his critic by portraying him in his representation of Minos—a figure of the underworld appointed by Dante to listen to the sins of the damned—with a great serpent twisted around his legs, among a heap of devils in Hell. It is, perhaps, the greatest revenge any artist has ever exacted on a critic: not only to place him in Hell, but to force him to listen to the shortcomings of the entire world.
The intersection of art and religion is always liable to produce friction. However, as Heavenly Bodies demonstrates, in the long run, the two are far more sympathetic of each other than they are antagonistic. It is a reality the Church is quick to recognize.
When Cardinal Ravasi explained the Vatican’s reasoning behind its collaboration with the Met, he spoke of the need for Christianity to test itself, to remain open and inquisitive: “I think that being present in every place, as Paul said, is typical of Christianity even going to the frontiers, and not closing oneself in one’s own protected oasis, as a certain type of Christianity does, which fears what lies beyond.”