Imagining Heaven on Earth

Heavenly BodiesMonday night the fashion and museum worlds had their annual collision at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Fashion Institute Gala. It’s always an entertaining display of the good, the bad, and the ugly. For every memorable moment of breathtaking creativity, there’s a designer phoning in the theme for the paycheck, or a moment of entitled privilege run amok. Stars: they ignore museum rules just like us! It’s great to admire the antique paneling of a period room, but that doesn’t mean you can lean against it for a selfie, Kim and Kylie. Not to mention that themed costume parties are almost always for offensive cultural appropriation, an issue that Costume Institute labels have generally given a permissive shrug.

This year’s theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, tied to an exciting exhibit featuring Vatican artifacts. Religion nerds waited with baited breath to see just how glorious or blasphemous the party would be. As usual, it was a mixed bag. Some gowns were tacky, and many barely addressed the theme. The red carpet resembled every middle school All Saints Day party, with guys in basic black and girls playing it safe as pretty angels and princesses. But several party goers did think outside the box and pay creative homage to religious imagination.

Imagination is the operative word here. As visual culture historian David Morgan eloquently explains in his recent book The Forge of Vision, religions teach their followers how to view the world. Catholic cosmology envisions an unbroken connection between heaven and earth via the sacraments and communion of saints. Since God became human, lived, suffered, and died on earth; physicality has been sanctified.

In Catholic practice, symbolic objects and garments function as visible reminders of invisible realities, and devotions consistently encourage the faithful to engage their imaginations. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the Mysteries of the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and even the concept of Eucharistic Transubstantiation itself make contemplative visualization a key component of prayer.

Over the past 2000 years Catholic imaginations have run into every nook and cranny of the human experience, and it’s not always glamorous. Gory martyr wounds, hoarded limbs of dead saints, and hearts pierced with sorrow dot the landscape. Bringing heaven into the material world inspires both creative excellence and brutal honesty. The best Met Gala ensembles recognized that Catholic imagination is more than just who has the fanciest robes.

Check out my best and worst picks after the jump. Photos come from this comprehensive Vogue slideshow.

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Anne Shirley’s Little House of Horrors

Anne With An E, Netflix’s new release of CBC’s Anne of Green Gables adaptation, wastes no time establishing itself as a spiritual successor to the Brontes’ Gothic dramas. “I just love Jane Eyre, don’t you?” sighs Anne to her AnnewithanEcompanion on the train to the Cuthberts. “I don’t know, I’ve never met her,” responds puzzled Mrs. Spencer with Mariah Carey indifference. This isn’t the last time Charlotte Bronte’s heroine is referenced in the new, darker, grittier Green Gables. As Anne recovers from the Dickensian misery of her orphan life, new dangers and trials await at every turn.

Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett’s vision is a sharp departure from Kevin Sullivan’s classic 1985 Anne of Green Gables film. His Avonlea was a quaint haven like Gilmore Girls‘ Stars Hollow; a close, quirky community full of seasonal festivals where a bookish girl could mature into a young woman. In this world, Sullivan crafted a comedy of manners more Austen than Bronte. Megan Follows’ Anne isn’t Jane Eyre; her literary ancestor is Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey. A Gothic romance superfan, the heroine of Jane Austen’s underrated first novel gets into awkward scrapes with her runaway imagination. Eventually she matures past visions of dark, foreboding suitors, and learns to temper her fantasies with a well-rounded reality.

Gothic melodrama follows the new Anne Shirley at every turn, making the viewer feel like a protective caregiver rather than a chummy peer. Vivid flashbacks to her harrowing past put her flights of fancy in a new light. These aren’t just quirks, they are coping mechanisms for child who has never known love or security. “Window friend” Katie Maurice is downright ominous; Anne seems on the verge of a psychotic break when she whispers to her reflection in a pane of glass.

There’s a lot to like about the materiality of this harsh realism. Sweeping landscape shots are breathtaking, but also unrelenting. Waves crash against cliffs, sunsets fade into total darkness, and cherry blossoms give way to frigid snow-covered fields. In domestic and school scenes we see the practical demands of everyday life at the turn of the twentieth century. Water must be pumped and carried, stove fires must be stoked, and evening conversations are barely lit by candles and oil lamps. This isn’t a naive, romantic view of Victorian life. In of the series’ best innovations, Anne gets her first period and naturally assumes she is dying of a tragic ailment until Marilla steps in to teach her to pin rags to her undergarments.

The actors are also excellent. Anne and her schoolmates look and sound like real kids, not adults masquerading as tweens. The Cuthberts, Anne’s spinster caregivers are also perfectly cast. Matthew is as quietly steadfast as you would hope, and Marilla strikes the perfect balance of exasperation and bemusement with Anne’s “nonsense.” The series plumbs her psychological depths too, exploring past heartbreak and the isolation of her childless spinster identity.

Sadly, this refreshing realism is often missing in the script. Conversation relies on too much on jarring modern slang like “How’s it going?” and “No worries.” Despite trusting viewers with emotional complexity, Walley-Beckett’s writing condescendingly blares out key themes like an after-school special. Anne isn’t just an outsider; practically every person in town openly mocks her whenever she leaves the house. It’s not enough for the complex female characters to have ambitions and build supportive relationships; they must contend with outright caricatures of the patriarchy. Mrs. Andrews solemnly pronounces: “Feminism. What an incredible word!” in case you’re too dense to infer These Changing Times. Such scenes are more pandering than empowering, and cartoonish villains belie how insidious sexism really is.

For all its progressive virtue signalling, Anne With An E‘s narrative ultimately feels like a throwback to television of past decades. Episodes fall into a tidy arc: a crisis hits; Anne musters her moxie; everyone has a good cry and learns a lesson. Disasters like house fires and treacherous ferry journeys span an episode and are rarely mentioned again.

The 1970s Little House on the Prairie series took the same approach, dragging out a literary coming-of-age story into nine seasons. Michael Landon padded the source material with a deluge of calamities and serious social issues. It’s a miracle the TV Ingalls family didn’t have more PTSD after witnessing countless fires, epidemics, deaths, scams, and financial losses. Treasured possessions, like Charles’ fiddle or Laura’s beloved horse bunny, were often the handy MacGuffins for crises and their resolutions.

Anne With an E also relies heavily on the tired “We can’t have nice things” plot device. No good comes of the Cuthberts’ formal parlor; its decorative furniture hosts deception, prejudice, and mortal danger. Cities likewise take on Biblical levels of malevolence. Any outing to a center of commerce brings bodily harm, not fun sightseeing.

A scene in the final episode of pawning treasures in economic desperation is the straw that broke this camel’s back. After probing the psyche of a neglected girl thirsting for beauty, it is cruel to heap more deprivations on her. Anne With an E deliberately builds a strong visual vocabulary, starting with the animated credits sequence dipping in symbolic cues. Plot twists that dispose of meaningful objects for the sake of drama are jarring contradictions to the show’s otherwise thoughtful world building. Emotionally manipulative material culture is the kind of lazy storytelling that makes “family entertainment” moralistic and tiresome.

Sullivan’s Anne was an empowering icon for girls of the 80s and 90s in large part because her story was a safe haven. She offered a place where it was ok to be smart, creative, confident and ambitious. Watching her survive overwrought fears or cringe-worthy gaffes taught me how to get past my own worries and embarrassments.

It’s not entirely clear what Walley-Beckett’s darker universe offers viewers besides empathy for orphans and gratitude for modern comforts. Anne With an E is too sincere for campy melodrama, yet takes too many cheap shots to be a nuanced character study. Even Jane Eyre got to have some quiet domestic respites between tragedies; here’s hoping season 2 lets her kindred spirit Anne do the same.


Museums in Movies: Jurassic World

Claire with dinosaur

Summer blockbuster Jurassic World feels like the perfect choice to continue my Museums in Movies series. The park is a for-profit attraction “selling $7 sodas,” but in essence it’s just a flashy natural history museum. This franchise installment shows us an expanded version of  John Hammond’s original vision for prehistoric thrills. With a larger scale comes even more possibility for disaster, though. For me, the scariest scenes were when a flourishing tourist destination became a visitor services hellscape. A low-ranking ride operator facing an angry mob when he must close a ride for “technical difficulties;” and a waiting area packed with hot, tired people enduring transit delays are the type of things that haunt my nightmares.

The film’s dinosaur danger arises when Jurassic World’s leaders try to combat a problem familiar to many museums: how to stay relevant to the modern world when you keep retelling the same story. Visitors are no longer wowed by “an interactive CD-ROM,” like back in ’93, or even by seeing a live dinosaur. The park has made some admittedly cool upgrades, like adding hologram exhibits or replacing the static Jeep paths with gyroscope pods. Kids can now enjoy hands-on activities like digging for “fossils” or riding a baby triceratops.

The park also may have sold out a bit, relying on corporate sponsor naming rights to fund new “attractions.” This makes the film’s abundant product placement winkingly self-referential, like when main characters enter the Samsung Visitors’ Center. Gone are the days of jello and ice cream in a single dining room; now there’s a Starbucks, a Margaritaville and a … Brookstone? Maybe some 1990s wonders still impress.

Battle of the Bulge simulation gallery

The new-and-improved Jurassic World reminded me of my recent visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which has opened several shiny additional buildings in the past few years. Its impressive airplane display wing is funded by, and named for, Boeing. You can even buy coffee cups with the vintage Boeing logo in the gift shop.  The WWII Museum’s newest exhibit, The Road to Berlin, features interactive touch screen kiosks and several surround-sound battle simulation set pieces. The latter seem to be a trend in museums dealing with military history; even the modest museum at Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in Staunton, VA invites visitors to walk through a trench amidst explosion sound effects. Similarly, one of the old guard of historic sites, Colonial Williamsburg, recently announced plans for a petting zoo and a flintlock shooting range, which I hope will operate on opposite ends of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Alas, Jurassic World’s innovation efforts are foiled by not just the usual shady bioethics, but an incompetent organizational culture. The park has grown too big and too automated for staff to communicate and collaborate well. Despite sinking millions of dollars into a high-risk new genetically-engineered “asset,” the staff have raised it incompetently. They have failed to consult expert dinosaur handlers about its habitat, and don’t even know the creatures of which it has been composed. Is no one in this place capable of writing a professional email?

Different park authorities view its dinosaurs not as living creatures, but as products or weapons that will bring flashy results. Contrast this with the detailed knowledge and geeky wonder the original Jurassic Park characters display. At the beginning of that film, Dr. Alan Grant brings a grumpy teenage boy from skepticism to fearful awe with dramatic storytelling and just one velociraptor claw prop. That’s the kind of dynamic interpretation that really builds visitor loyalty.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters of Jurassic World show neither understanding nor good storytelling in their treatment of female characters. While Owen (Chris Pratt) gets to swagger around as a funny, brave and generally hunky specimen of red-blooded American manhood, the ladies are either nagging shrews or uptight workaholics. Re-enacting Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s infamous recent comments about women in science, they attract romantic overtures from colleagues and even cry in the computer lab. Diligent mission control tech Vivian sensibly pairs a cardigan, tights, and flats with her modest dress, but is still #distractinglysexy to her male colleague Lowery at his messy desk. Spoiler alert: the saucy minx ultimately rejects his advances.

“Uh, I have a boyfriend.”

“Oh! I didn’t know you guys were like, together together. You never mentioned it.”

“Well, I was at work.”

Even though women –including single mothers- are increasingly taking on museum leadership roles, Jurassic World subjects us to the tired Hollywood syllogism that female professionalism is a zero sum game. The more effort a woman movie character puts into her job, the more she will neglect her personal relationships. The Big Meeting must always conflict with boyfriends’ birthday parties and dinner with relatives, because apparently scheduling and vacation time don’t exist.

Sure enough, park operations director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is so busy running things that she ignores her sister’s calls and doesn’t even remember her nephews’ ages, blowing off their visit. The film mocks her for studying prospective donor names and having visitor stats ready for her boss – both of which would be expected of someone in her position. We even get a reminder that Claire should really have kids someday, even though nothing is said about the male staff’s family status.

I’ll admit, Claire’s John Hammond-esque white ensemble was lovely, but she couldn’t have ditched the skirt and heels for something more practical for sprinting through the forest?  Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ellie Sattler and her khaki shorts would be appalled. That previous heroine also managed to keep her maternal instinct intact doing extensive fieldwork, and didn’t flinch from danger, quipping “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” By the end Claire does channel a little of Dr. Sattler, becoming more protective and proactive, but she’s still a poor role model.

Despite its lame characterization, Jurassic World still manages to be a fun, exciting dinosaur thrill ride full of homages to its origin story. It’s a more logical continuation of the Jurassic Park world; let’s ignore the other two lame sequels and call this the reboot. If amidst the summer entertainment, a few kids get inspired to keep learning about paleontology, then the special effects haven’t been in vain. Really, that’s what all museums hope for each vacation season.

Richard III Remembered With Embroidery

Yesterday the body of England’s King Richard III was reburied in Leicester cathedral, over 500 years after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Archaeologists found his makeshift first grave under a parking lot in 2012. (It’s deliciously ironic how “found under a carpark” is now the phrase that must appear in all news coverage of a man who once wore a crown.)

Although Shakespeare and history books have focused on Richard’s bloody role in the War of the Roses, the proceedings this week were about his historical significance and also his vulnerable humanity.

Perhaps most poignantly, earlier this week Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols said a special requiem mass for the dead king. A moment of remarkable Anglican-Catholic cooperation, it also symbolized how even the most powerful people on earth still need God’s redemptive grace.

Better still, Cardinal Nichols wore an historic chasuble believed to be from Richard III’s royal wardrobe. Dating to the late fifteenth century, the embroidered robe is now in the collection of former Catholic seminary Ushaw college. The UK Catholic Herald described its embroidery detail:

The Westminster Vestment is an example of Opus Anglicanum (English work), the rich, complex and beautiful works of ecclesiastical embroidery for which England was famous during the Middle Ages.

It has been made from velvet cloths of tissue linked together with silver-gilt brocading thread, with the figures cut from coloured silks and attached to a golden background.

The chasuble depicts the Crucified Christ with the Roman soldier Longinus expressing his belief that Jesus is the “Son of God”. It features depictions of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Pancras, the teenage Roman martyr whose relics were brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury.

Image via Catholic Herald

It’s truly magnificent, and a great example of church vestments of its era. Velvet, metallic thread, and highly symbolic embroidered scenes are all hallmarks of opus anglicanum. The motif of angels collecting Christ’s blood in chalices while He hangs on the cross is a particularly popular recurring image, emphasizing the Eucharist’s connection to calvary.

Intricate chasubles and copes fell out of favor after the English Reformation. Centuries later, as I discovered in my master’s thesis research, Anglicans and American Episcopalians would rediscover the beauty of medieval English needlework and try to replicate its prestige in their own churches.

It’s interesting how the black pall covering Richard’s simple coffin while it was on view this week also featured embroidered figures, including a six-winged seraph. It appears that opus anglicanum has come full circle, once again an important element of royal religiosity in England. As Cardinal Nichols pointed out in his homily, Richard III lived and died as a Catholic, whatever his sins. While some of his successors would have cringed to see such liturgical ceremony, he would have acknowledged the symbolic significance of copes and chasubles.

Whether Richard and his Gilded Age imitators were using that liturgical beauty to pad their own egos is definitely possible. But in the end, everyone dies and ends up helpless under a liturgical cloth.

Via Getty Images

Today opus anglicanum pieces are treasured artifacts in museums, including the V&A in London and from the same time period, like this elaborate velvet chasuble, at The Cloisters in New York City. If you ever visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s castle on the upper West Side, be on the lookout for this velvet chasuble and other amazing vestments.

That Time the Pope Went to the World’s Fair

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Not unlike the modern Olympics, the Fair didn’t turn a profit, but it hosted months of culturally significant spectacles. The Ford Mustang was introduced, Walt Disney launched the It’s a Small World ride, Andy Warhol mocked politicians with some controversial pop art, civil rights activists staged protests blocking highway ramps, the Beatles played in Shea Shadium, and Bob Dylan infamously used an amp.

Like the New York’s first World’s Fair in 1939, this was the brainchild of infamous urban planner Robert Moses. (Cue chorus of boos from historic preservation fans.) Fading from political power towards the end of his career, he hoped hosting another World’s Fair and turning Queens garbage dumps into the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds and park would cement his legacy.
The Unisphere on my visit in June
Even though Moses left a legacy of cruel historic demolitions, I’ll admit Flushing Meadows is a great park. Some of the fair buildings are still open as museums. The ’64 Fair also gave Queens the amazingly topographic Unisphere, which has become an icon of the borough. It’s a great example of space age public art that can belong to everyone, not unlike my old friend the St. Louis arch. Plus, you can buy the world a Coke and keep it company while you’re there.
For Catholics, the ’64 fair has special significance because it brought the United States its first papal visit ever. We have Robert Moses’ ambition to thank for it. The Vatican had a pavilion at the Fair, and even shipped over Michaelangelo’s Pieta to display there. Moses hoped his friend Cardinal Spellman could convince the Pope to stop by in a clutch PR move for the World’s Fair.

Vatican Pavilion at Flushing Meadows. Collection of the NYPL.

And so on October 5, 1965, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to set foot on American soil. He spent only fourteen hours in NYC, establishing the usual cathedral-stadium-political arena template for future papal visits. After landing at the new JFK Airport in Queens, he spent most of his time in Manhattan at a mixture of modern and old-school locations. He visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and met with President Johnson at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The Holy Father also addressed the United Nations, warning that “Politics do not suffice to sustain a durable peace.” Later he said Mass at Yankee Stadium, not Moses’ brainchild Shea Stadium (ooh burn!).Finally, on his way out of town, Paul VI did stop at the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds. Today a marble bench marks where he stood.

Pope Paul VI’s whirlwind tour wasn’t as substantial as later papal visits, but it was surely a landmark moment for American Catholics. Only a few years before, John F.Kennedy had become the first Catholic president and a beloved political figure. Seeing the Church’s leader welcomed as an international dignitary must have cemented the fact that “papists’ had been accepted as true Americans, not a dangerous superstitious group swearing loyalty to a foreign power. Also, American Catholicism was no longer just mission territory; it was a major wing of the Church garnering Vatican attention! Eleven years later Paul VI would canonize New Yorker Elizabeth Ann Seton as the first American-born saint, further establishing the United States’ role in Catholic history.

Pope Paul VI window in St. Philomena church, Livingston, NJ.

I found evidence of this papal euphoria in a parish near me in New Jersey. With its simple yet vaguely colonial style, St. Philomena was probably built in the early 1970s before post-Vatican II modernism had really caught on. The ample stained glass windows depict mysteries of the rosary, local bishops, and … Pope Paul VI’s NYC visit. The window is amazing and bordering on souvenir-store kitch: Paul VI raises his hands in blessing amidst the Stars and Stripes, St. Patrick’s, the UN, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty. (Sadly, the Unisphere did not make the cut.) A panel at the bottom notes the date of the pontiff’s visit. Perhaps some parishioners fondly remembered attending the Mass in Yankee Stadium and donated the window? I’ll be on the lookout for more Paul VI commemorations in the area. American Catholicism: if it can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

If you want to learn more about the 1964 World’s Fair, I highly recommend Joseph Tirella’s new book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America, from which I got much of the information in the post. If you find yourself in Grand Central this fall, you should also check out this free exhibit.

Fun Museum Finds

Summer’s winding down, but I can’t bear to think about long sleeves yet. It’s been too much fun hanging out in the sunshine and taking road trips to new museums. Before we pack away the sundresses and sandals for good, here are some fun images of outdoor festivity that I’ve seen recently.
To start off, here are two paintings from the series Apollo and the Muses at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Its new app and digital interactive displays are well worth a visit, by the way.)

Erato, the muse of Lyric Poetry on the left, is basically Taylor Swift’s spirit animal. She’s all billows and curls, sitting in a romantic grove with Cupid while she literally writes with one of his arrows. I imagine this is also how Swift composed her Wall Street Journal article about the value of art. “[People] are buying only the [albums] that hit them like an arrow through the heart … and I’d also want a nice garden.”

Meanwhile, check out the epic side eye from Clio, the muse of History. “Are you serious girl? I’m over here writing about wars and plagues and fallen empires, and you’re sitting under a billowing canopy? I hope the Persians hit you with a spear.” The two paintings really are displayed like this, with Apollo between them.

I’m not exactly sure what the artist Charles Meynier meant here. Clio’s expression is pretty hilarious – but hey wait, is he saying female scholars are all ice cold? Does he think history is just dust and monuments? I do like the suggestion that maxi dresses and serious business can go together, though.

Speaking of summer fashions, lest you think flower crowns are a new trend, check out this etching from the print collection of Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown, NJ. George Washington is entering Trenton victorious after  crossing the Delaware River to defeat the British. The city’s daughters have turned out for the parade in their best music festival apparel.

George Washington also spent some time in Brooklyn, although he wasn’t as successful there. NYC wasn’t quite as built up back in the 1770s, as you can see in this 18th century map from Morristown. I love the little soldiers marching along the palisades.

See Charles Meynier, even military history isn’t completely humorless.

Museums in Movies: Richard III


Adapting a Shakespeare play for a modern setting always runs the risk of veering into hamfisted analogies, but when done with creativity and skill it can make you see the Bard’s timeless language in a new light. The 1995 film of Richard III starring Ian McKellen is one such example. The 1930s setting provides dazzling, plus it gives Richard’s tyranny a fascist feel. The cast is a stellar collection of British actors, plus pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. for good measure. Even better, it uses several museums and historic houses as filming locations, showcasing their most dramatic aspects.

Photo © Marcus Leith/Tate

Modernist architecture provides compelling scenery for the political drama. (So compelling, in fact, that the same locations appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.) Most notably, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1947 Bankside Power Station serves as a streamlined re-imaging of the Tower of London. Today this building is the home of the Tate Modern. It opened to the public in 2000 after major interior renovations; Richard III probably filmed there just before demolitions began. Another Art Deco industrial site, Battersea Power Station, is the site of Richard’s final battle.


Senate House

The power stations’ striking geometry is mimicked by the bold, clean lines of Richard’s office headquarters, which are set in the Senate House of the University College, London. This 1937 Art Deco tower designed by Charles Holden has its own fraught political legacy, since it was the site of the Ministry of Information offices during World War II. George Orwell modeled the appearance of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 after its aesthetic. The building’s bold, direct style is a perfect match for Richard’s single-minded ambition.

Brighton Pavilion music room.

Modern minimalism is even more compelling in contrast with the ornate style of other settings. The Brighton Pavilion‘s over-the-top orientalism makes some colorful appearances. Look for its music room lotus chandeliers in a shot from King Edward IV’s deathbed. Gothic revival elements fill other royal spaces – some ornate urinals at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill estate even make a showing.

These luxurious spaces eventually fade from view, though, as the play shifts toward its belligerent conclusion. The certainty of earlier regimes is a distant memory, and Richard’s power proves precarious. He may get to traverse the battlefield in a jeep, but in the end he’s still left crying out for a horse. Modern power is fraught with unpredictability, and its day in the sun is short before it must give way to the next generation and its innovations.


Image sources: Tate Modern, Senate House, Brighton Pavilion.