The Vatican and Rihanna Will Collide at the Metropolitan Museum’s Next Costume Institute Extravaganza

The latest show explores Catholicism's influence on art and fashion.

El Greco's Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (ca. 1600); and an evening coat by Cristobal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, autumn/winter 1954–55. Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb.

It is rare that Rihanna and the Vatican would find themselves together in a headline—but if any institution could be responsible for such a feat, it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

The institution looks poised to continue its track record of buzzy, boundary-pushing spectacles with its just-announced 2018 spring exhibition, which examines the dialogue between Catholicism and high fashion. The annual star-studded Met Ball, which coincides with the exhibition’s opening, will be co-hosted by Pop star Rihanna and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, among others.

The exhibition, titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” (May 10–October 8), will center around 50 papal vestments, rings, tiaras, and other accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy. Many of them have never been seen outside of the Vatican, according to the Met. The objects span three centuries and 15 papacies; they represent the largest loan from the Vatican to the museum since 1983.

Follower of Lippo Memmi’s Saint Peter (mid–14th century) and an evening dress by Elsa Schiaparelli, summer 1939. Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb.

“Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another,” Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, said in a statement. “Although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.”

The Met show—its largest fashion exhibition ever—seeks to trace the relationship between fashion and Catholicism’s rituals and pageantry. Curators will juxtapose ensembles alongside works of religious art from the museum’s collection. The sprawling production will extend across three locations: the medieval galleries, the Costume Center, and the Cloisters, the museum’s dedicated home for medieval art in upper Manhattan. (Curators from all three departments co-organized the exhibition.)

The show will include 150 outfits from the early 20th century to the present day that take inspiration from Catholic imagery, including designs by Azzedine Alaïa, Cristobal Balenciaga, Raf Simons, and Ricardo Tisci. (The show is sponsored by Versace, which commonly employs ecclesiastical imagery on its gilded vestments; designer Donatella Versace is also a Met Ball co-host.) Objects include, for example, a gown by Valentino inspired by Francisco di Zurbarán’s depictions of monks’ robes.

Fragment of a Floor Mosaic with a Personification of Ktisis,
Byzantine (ca. 500-550); and Ensemble, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for Dolce & Gabbana, autumn/winter 2013–14. Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb.

The juxtaposition of worldly materialism and religious values inevitably has the potential to invite criticism. Andrew Bolton assured The New York Times that he had spoken to representatives from various Catholic groups to ensure none of the items would be incendiary or disrespectfully used. “There will always be viewers who want to reduce it to a political polemic,” he said.

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