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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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.