Celebrities borrowing from religious imagery is nothing new. The bigger issue is why many see their faith as being more relevant to the past than the present
Rihanna turned up in a glittering mitre and Madonna sang Like a Prayer, and together with the frocks of other A-list celebrities attending New York’s Met Gala with its Catholic church theme, they sent some commentators into overdrive. The fulminations ranged from accusations of blasphemy to cultural appropriation. Piers Morgan wrote that the event “crossed a line and was openly, brazenly disrespectful” to his religion.
What the critics failed to mention was the extent to which the Met Ball and the exhibition from which it took its inspiration – Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute – have the support of the Vatican. It has loaned dozens of items, including vestments, from its priceless collection to the show; it sent the Sistine Chapel choir to sing at the Met Ball; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York attended too. Dolan joked: “I’m the only one who didn’t have to go out and buy an outfit.”
He also said the Met had been respectful and guests polite and friendly. So if there was any cultural appropriation, the Vatican encouraged it, given the loans from its collections. After all, the church is itself a past master at appropriation. It took pagan symbols and traditions such as mistletoe and eggs to become parts of Christmas and Easter. In parts of Africa and Latin America, music and dance of different cultures have often been incorporated into Catholic liturgies.
What Dolan’s appreciation of the show reveals, though, is the extent to which the Catholic church wants to engage with contemporary culture. Heavenly Bodies is evidence of new thinking inside the Vatican. Its museums used to be sniffily exclusive, neither borrowing nor lending to other galleries. That has now changed, as has the attitude of the Sistine Chapel choir, which now engages with other musicians too, such as Westminster Abbey’s choir, which has sung at St Peter’s. Much of this is down to the influence of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who first involved the church in exhibiting at Venice’s art biennale in 2013.
The Heavenly Bodiesshow highlights not only this engagement, but also shows quite how profound an influence Catholicism can have on culture. Curator Andrew Bolton, raised as a Catholic in Lancashire, has said that when he started researching religions and fashion he discovered that most of the designers he was studying were baptised Catholics.
Catholicism is certainly a visual religion: visit a church and you will find statues of the Virgin Mary, the saints and martyrs. Then there is the stained glass, the crucifixes, the richly embroidered vestments. It all fires a child’s imagination. Catholic iconography isn’t just found in church either, but in the home. My Catholic grandmother kept a statue of the Sacred Heart in her kitchen, and used it for her spare elastic bands: if she’d been granny to Gaultier, Galliano or Balenciaga, imagine what that might have inspired.
Something else is evident about the designers chosen for the Met’s show: their imaginations were fired by the church, but mostly they are lapsed Catholics. If lapsed Catholics I know are typical, it’s more likely that the designers are horrified by the church’s record on abuse and find its approach to sex, and especially to gay people, too rigid. Cardinal Dolan has said he had conversations at the Met Ball with people speaking fondly of their Catholic childhoods. He and Pope Francis need to think hard about why, for so many brought up Catholic, the church means nostalgia for the past, rather than a guiding light for the present.
• Catherine Pepinster is the author of The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy