The Skirts of the Infinite

Art, Fashion, and the Catholic Imagination

Madonna della Grazie, by Riccardo Tisci (2015), original design by the Poor Benedettine Cassinesi Nuns of Lecce in 1950, and the Wedding Dress by Cristobal Balenciaga (1967), both gowns shown at the 2018 Costume Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibit. (Photos by Fr. Timothy Shea Valentine.)


“[Christianity allows mankind to] grasp at the skirts of the Infinite. Since Christ the dead world
has woken up from sleep. Since him we have lived.” — Oscar Wilde

Introduction: Idyll or Idol? Memories of Suburban Spirituality
Growing up on Long Island, I remember my mother setting a plaster statue of the Infant of Prague on my dresser, replete with crown, orb, white robe, and red cape. Hardly haute couture, of course, but I loved that holy thing. It was part of an environment in which faith was the air we breathed, where conversation with Jesus was as natural and unforced as any other. Relatively speaking, my statue was simple; others are quite garish. The figure lends itself to all sorts of irreverent commentary, to wit: “What did the Blessed Mother say to the Infant of Prague? ‘I don’t care who you are; you’re not going out dressed like that!’”

That line came to mind when reading about the 2018 Costume Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibit. At the gala, various celebrities modeled costumes inspired by Catholicism. I wondered: how might Our Lady have reacted to those outfits? Would she applaud, or be appalled? On the one hand, curator Andrew Bolton, and gala director Anna Wintour, have assembled a first-class collection of religious and liturgical art on loan from the Vatican Museum, and solicited input from local Catholic leaders, like Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York. On the other hand, visitors may be stunned at the sight of a “bondage mask” (don’t ask) festooned with rosary beads and, at the gala, a pop singer dressed as the Virgin, with swords protruding from her chest, signifying Mary’s “seven dolors.” No kidding! What reward for their makers? Laurel wreaths? Sackcloth and ashes? No need: Oscar Wilde says it best when he defines fashion as “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

After some hesitation, I decided to attend the exhibit at both locations: the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, and the Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. I’m glad I did, but I had to make a mental distinction between several aspects of the event: the Vatican Collection itself, the permanent Met collection of medieval art, the creations of modern designers (many of whom were raised Catholic, or are clearly influenced by the faith), and the costumes worn at the gala. The last element is easily the most controversial and least significant, yet all four stimulate a productive conversation about the “Catholic Imagination,” a term coined by priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley. He writes: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation (2000).” Greeley’s eloquent—and elegant—description calls attention to the real star of the exhibit: the genius of Catholicism, which utilizes metaphor, analogy, and even “shock” (rightly understood) to look deeply into both the natural world and human artifice, and find them shot through with the presence of God.

Catholic Imagination
So what exactly is “Catholic Imagination”? Any third-grader in parochial school knows that catholic means “universal” or “tolerant.” The Church reaches out through time and space and, at its finest moments, affirms the best in human society, purifying it with the Gospel. The word itself comes from two Greek terms, kata (κατά: concerning/according to) and holos (ὅλος: whole), suggesting that the entire scope of personal and interior experience (particularly through culture and the intellectual life) comes under the purview of grace. Theologian Richard Viladesau (2000) calls the first notion (“salvation of all”) the extensive meaning of the word “catholic”; the second (“salvation of each person as a whole”) is its intensive meaning.

The implications for the twofold meaning of “Catholic” are staggering. For us, faith is not simply one approach to the world among many disparate and contradictory alternatives. Indeed, it is the affirmation that, although one might not completely understand how human experiences fit together—good and evil, beauty and ugliness, time and eternity—nevertheless, they do. The same can be said for different ways of knowing, what educators call “multiple intelligences.” For example, scientists can freely inquire into the “what” and “how” of the natural world according to their own methodology; faith, in turn, helps them look more deeply into the ultimate purpose of the truth they uncover, as well as its its moral application. Rarely do practicing, educated Catholics get caught in “either/or” controversies surrounding scientific and religious explanations of the world. They have an intuition of what Avery Dulles (1985) calls the “Catholic Principle,” a way of knowing that appreciates the “creative tension (of) ‘both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’” statements. They also know that Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian physicist whose theories about an expanding universe led to what we know as the “Big Bang,” was also a devout Roman Catholic priest. Before Lemaitre, Gregor Mendel, whose experiments in crossbreeding led to the science of genetics, was an Augustinian friar. Correctly understood, both science and religion “tell the truth” about the world, each in its own way. Catholics, therefore, make no attempt to subordinate science to religion; rather, faith assures us that intelligence, not randomness, is active in the origin and workings of the universe.

Art, likewise, corresponds to another impulse that may intersect with faith without being “ruled” by it. Indeed, Sr. Wendy, the “Art Nun,” reminds us that good religious art must first be good art. But what is good art? Of all modern Popes, the one who seems to have the most to say on the subject—his own writing and that of others—is Benedict XVI. According to him (2009), “Natural and artistic beauty opens human awareness beyond ourselves… (It) helps us grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite…” In this respect, art encounters the universe in a way that is different from, but complementary to, that of science. The latter seeks to understand the world by analyzing it, breaking it down the into its most basic elements to see how they work. By contrast, the expressive power of art lies in its ability to “stitch together,” or harmonize (harmozo=ἁρμόζω) myriad sensual elements—color, marble, sound, movement, language, space, and for our purposes, fabric—and thereby produce objects that connect, concentrate, and intensify human experience, both sacred and secular. In turn, these objects elicit an aesthetic response within those who perceive them. To be sure, not all art is “pretty” or “comforting.” The ugly and evil can also be legitimate subject matter for the artist, as we shall see; yet even in these, the negative only throws into sharp relief the highest, noblest aspirations of humanity. In other words, we only appreciate light as it contrasts with darkness; virtue, with vice; eternity, with time.

The Vatican Collection
We turn, then, to the treasures of the Vatican Collection (none of which may be photographed), as much for the issues they raise as for the beauty of the holy objects themselves. First are the items that comprise ordinary papal dress. The papal cassock (tunic), mozzetta, sash, and zucchetto (skullcap) are traditionally white, perhaps more for historical reasons than aesthetic ones. Innocent V became pope in the 13th century and, as a member of the Dominican order, retained the white habit throughout his reign; the practice seems to have continued since then. (Might this be a medieval example of “cultural appropriation”?) The red slippers represent a contrast of sorts: a sign of imperial power, of course, but also the blood of the martyrs. Rounding out the display is a set of silver and gilt ceremonial keys, presented to Pope Leo XIII in 1903, symbolizing the authority of the Vicar of Christ to bind and loosen (Mt. 18:18-19).

The next gallery reveals hundreds of items designed for ceremonial and liturgical use. A number of silken copes with gold stitching and tapestries depict the life of Christ and the sufferings of the saints; bejeweled clasps secure each hefty garment over the shoulders of the pontiff. It strikes one that the sheer weight of papal vesture is itself a reminder of the awesome responsibility entrusted to those who assume it. The craftsmanship of these magnificent pieces, to say nothing of the time required to sew, embroider, and tailor them, would be the envy of any Parisian atelier. They are matched by the intricate designs for liturgical vestments, particularly a “fiddleback” chasuble and dalmatic with “cartoons” by Raphael and Paolo Veronese depicting the Fall of Man and the Passion of Christ. The remarkable dalmatic, with elaborate embroidery, shows Christ falling under the weight of his cross, and Simon of Cyrene helping him bear his burden, all under the watchful eyes of menacing soldiers. The imagery strikes the secular observer as inconsistent: a beautifully constructed scene to be sure, but the subject matter is unsettling to say the least. What does one “see”? A lovely image? Or an unspeakable crime against an innocent man? The eyes of faith see no contradiction; the suffering of Christ is beautiful, for as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, it shows the lengths to which Jesus goes out of love for sinful humanity.

Another gallery displays a series of objects signifying papal authority: the pectoral cross (worn over the chest), the papal ring (depicting St. Peter, the “fisher” of men), and the triple tiara, signifying the offices of priest, prophet, and king exercised by the pope (and, by extension, any member of the faithful). Pope Paul VI discontinued the use of the latter during his pontificate, opting for a simple miter—headgear for any bishop—to suggest that his relationship with the episcopacy is one of primus inter pares (“first among peers”). Jewelers and artisans have taken diamonds, gems, precious stones, as well as gold and silver, to fashion objects of exquisite beauty.

Two things strike the observer as curious. It is said that when a pope dies, his ring is destroyed, but several examples are featured here. Is the destruction of the papal ring simply a modern practice? And at the entrance to the exhibit hangs a thoroughly modern-looking chasuble created by Henri Matisse for the Chapel du Rosaire in Vence, France. This chapel, his last great masterpiece, was completed in 1951 for a community of Dominican nuns, a member of which was his former assistant and muse. It appears to be something of an anachronism to find a non-fiddleback vestment from the days before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

A Flight to Heaven, or Playing to the Masses? Suger and Bernard on Ecclesiastical Art
For all the delight the papal treasures elicit, they also raise a troubling question: Isn’t this a bit much? After all, various passages from the New Testament praise the poor in spirit (Mt. 5: 3), indict the rich (Lk. 16: 19-31), and call the latter to the former (Mk. 10: 17-27). Today, Catholics follow a pope who chooses not to live in splendid apartments, but prefers instead to share the House of Saint Martha with visiting cardinals, and drive a tiny Fiat in papal convoys (much to the exasperation of his security team). He even takes his name from a saint, the son of a wealthy merchant, who stripped publicly to show his detachment from the lure of material things, beginning with expensive clothing. In a world of earthquakes and eruptions, gang violence and drug addiction, is it not unseemly to devote precious resources to ornate churches, when the money might be better spent on more pressing matters?

This is not a new question; it goes back a least as far as the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, in the midst of the Crusades, the Abbot Suger was the administrator of the Church of St. Denis, the epicenter of French ecclesiastical, political, and cultural power. Suger was determined to restore the decrepit abbey church and express a uniquely French confluence of art, religion, and politics in one great architectural masterpiece. The result was the emergence of the Gothic style, in which light, space, and ceremony draw the faithful ever upward into the presence of God. To say that Suger splurged on the project would be putting it mildly: gilded doors, a renovated and expanded nave, a crucifix made of gold, pearls, and gems, as well as ornate reliquaries and eucharistic vessels, were just part of the magnificent edifice designed for the glory of God. Recalling the Old Testament account of the restored temple in Jerusalem after Israel’s exile (Ezra 28:13-28), Suger describes an ecstatic vision in which the beauty of earthly worship reflects that of the heavenly court: “Delight in the beauty of God’s house called me away from external cares…to immaterial things…I was transported in an anagogical (mystical) manner from this inferior level to that superior one.” Suger uses Platonic categories (in which beauty catapults the soul into the realm of the divine) to describe the raising of mind and heart toward God; for him, the celestial and mundane worlds intersect at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Horrified by Suger’s inclination toward the ostentatious, St. Bernard takes a decidedly different, “ascetical” approach toward the ornamentation of sacred buildings. He recognizes, of course, that “bishops use material beauty to arouse devotion of a carnal people who do not respond to spiritual means. But we who have left these lovely things of the world for Christ, accounting them as so much dung (Philippians 3:8): what do we expect from them? Admiration from the foolish?” Monks, according to Bernard, must be masters of self-denial so as to develop spiritual maturity, but those like Suger betray their religious charism. They evince a “soft” spirituality, preferring to revel in luxurious statues of exotic animals and scenery, while ignoring the real, interior challenge of the Scriptures. Then he lowers the boom: “If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?” Speaking of silly, imagine St. Bernard’s reaction at the Met gala to an actress inexplicably wearing what appears to be a Nativity scene on her head. With apologies to her Sex and the City character: I can’t help but wonder…

The Twin Dangers: Superficiality and Logocentrism
Suger and Bernard represent two extremes in the conversation about art in the service of God. Fortunately, both fall within the parameters of Catholic orthopraxis. Bernard rants against a church that is “resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked.” In his defense, there is a profound theological truth behind what seems to be a purely moral argument. Christian worship is different in kind from the animal sacrifice of the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., the worship of God became a more interior exercise, in which the faithful read and meditated upon the Scriptures. The question, however, is whether or not either form of worship ever brought about the full reconciliation between God and his People. Christians believe that previous forms of worship anticipate the coming of the Savior, but in the mystery of Christ, the embodiment of that reconciliation, something new has occurred. Benedict (2011) writes: “The Temple remained a venerable place of prayer and proclamation. Its sacrifices, though, were no longer relevant for Christians.” Bernard is concerned that inordinate attention to material beauty might obscure the essence of spiritual worship (John 4:24), signaling a “revival” of the older ritual.

Would that all believers might attain the divine discipline Bernard expects from his monks, who meet Christ in the Scriptures, and accompany him in his sufferings. As it is, however, such heroic virtue does not come easily for most Catholics who, in the realm of the Spirit, need to take baby steps, who need to be “wooed,” so to speak, by the Lover of the Soul. As Oscar Wilde (who died a Catholic) once quipped: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” In the course of its history, the Catholic Church has known the ebb and tide between emphasis on the sacra pagina (“holy text” of the Scriptures), and other, more sensual expressions of Christian belief. The former, according to Viladesau, runs the risk of “logocentrism,” an overly intellectualized appropriation of faith, one that only served to widen the historical separation between the clergy (who could read) and the faithful (who could not). By contrast, stained glass, mosaic, painting, sculpture, vestments, architecture, and music performed an invaluable service by introducing the rudes (uneducated people) to the truths of the faith. Appealing to that spirit, the sponsors of the exhibit once again quote Benedict (2002): “Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.” So who is more advanced in the spiritual life? The seminary professor brilliantly explaining the Five Ways of St. Thomas? Or the ninety-year-old widow praying at the Sixth Station of the Cross (“Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”) for the salvation of her husband who died 40 years ago, and her family who currently struggle? Catholicism embraces the “whole” of the human search for God: the soul with its capacity for the Infinite, and the body with its connection to the material world.

The “Heavenly Bodies” Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Author’s Note: There are few ideas more preposterous than the notion that I have any expertise whatsoever in the area of fashion. Indeed, I developed my “sack-of-potatoes-chic” fashion sense browsing the racks at J.C. Penney and Walmart. What follows is merely a layman’s general impressions guided by museum notes.)

The exhibit of modern fashion begins with two collections of evening dresses, located in parallel corridors leading to the Met’s Medieval and Byzantine Art wing. The “southern” corridor collection, by Dolce and Gabbana, includes five dresses inspired by the medium of mosaic art, and specifically, images from two Sicilian cathedrals: Cefalù and Monreale. These Roman Catholic edifices are themselves a synthesis of various architectural styles—Norman, Byzantine, and Arab—in which the figure of Christ Pantokrator (“almighty ruler” or “ruler of all”) dominates. The dresses, like mosaics, seem to be constructed almost piece-by-piece, with an embroidered image of a saint on the top. To be literally covered by a saint, or at least one’s likeness, is both intimidating and awe-inspiring, as though one were swathed in mystery. The dresses are a blend of luxurious materials: beige silk organza (or silk for us plebeians), embroidered polychrome crystals, seed beads, silk and gold metal thread, gold and silver paillettes (couldn’t they have just written “sequins”?), and mother-of-pearl-encrusted stones. The dresses are like sartorial jewelry: painstakingly intricate, complex, and rich.

The “northern” corridor comprises a series of gold mesh evening dresses by Versace. These pieces, as well as jackets elsewhere, utilize the central Christian symbol of the Cross. Two figure-hugging evening dresses, both ankle-length, elicit different reactions; one scatters a number of crosses over the surface of the gown, while in the other, a giant cross conforms to the shape of the entire body. The latter has a provocative effect, one that blurs the line between the sacred and the profane. If in the D&G dresses one were “wearing” a saint, in the Versace gown she seems to “bear” the cross.

Upon entering the Medieval gallery of the Met, one comes upon what I think is one of the most successful—albeit traditional—collections of the exhibit: the Dressed Madonna. In fact, the only unsuccessful aspect of this part is the introduction itself, which had to have been by a non-Catholic. Otherwise, it would never have read that Catholics “worship” Mary as the “Bride of Christ.” Neither is true: Our Lady is venerated, not worshipped, by Catholics as Christ’s Mother, whereas his Bride, strictly speaking, is the Church. The practice of dressing statues of the Blessed Mother goes back to the Middle Ages. The stand-out in this display is Riccardo Tisci’s “Madonna Delle Gracie,” a showstopper that envisions Our Lady as an elegant, red-headed Queen of Heaven (who knew she was Irish?): the very essence of graceful serenity.

Next come two collections of mannequins in black, highly stylized “ensembles,” based on traditional women’s religious habits, and the “soutane” (cassock) worn by male clerics. The latter is relatively unremarkable, save for the fact that it repurposes a male garment as women’s eveningwear. Together, they constitute a somewhat tortured metaphor of “Catholic liturgy-as-fashion show,” complete with “models” (clerics and religious) and “audience members” (congregation). Get it? To drive home the point for the more obtuse among us, the sponsors thoughtfully include a video clip from the 1972 Fellini movie Roma, which combines the two as satire. It has everything: nuns in cornette-winged headdresses simulating flight, roller-skating cardinals, and a priest in cassock and surplice swinging a thurible in circular motion. (The smoking incense is reminiscent of an actress’s catty stage-whisper at Mass: “Darling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire!”) The spectacle is hardly a panegyric to clerical masculinity, mocking as it does a decadent church that has lost its relevance. That aside, the habit-themed collection is visually more interesting as a blend of the religious veil with what can only be described as a black cocktail dress. Imagine: Audrey Hepburn could have used the same outfit for both The Nun’s Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I would never question the craftsmanship or artistry of the habit/evening gown show; my concern, however, is its purpose. Think of it: Men show no embarrassment seeing each other wearing the same suit, but for their wives or girlfriends, the whole point of fashion is that the wearer stands out from the crowd, to be appreciated for her unique personality and unrepeatable loveliness. Everyone knows this who has seen the classic episode of “I Love Lucy,” in which the gals buy the same “one-of-a-kind” dress at two different department stores (Macy’s and Gimbel’s), only to end up in a brawl on live TV during what should have been a performance of Cole Porter’s “Friendship”! The purpose of a religious habit, by contrast, is to go in precisely the opposite direction: one of economy, efficiency and, more importantly, self-abnegation. Novelist Rumer Godden (In This House of Brede, 1969) describes the interior effect the habit produces within the nun who has forsaken the world: “(I)t is deeper than looks or even convenience. The habit, the veil, our cut hair under the cap, are meant for self-effacement. We need to be free of the preoccupations that plague other women, preoccupations with self, which was precisely why we did away with these time-consuming frills.”

Catholic spirituality is not so much about contempt for self, but about self-forgetfulness, in order to attend to the things of God. In his brilliantly argued essay, “Make Catholicism Weird Again” (New York Times, 2018), Ross Douthat explains that non-Catholics will never quite be able to figure out what makes us tick. I, however, would respectfully substitute “delightfully eccentric” in place of “weird.” Why? Because the Catholic woman (or man, for that matter) does not indulge in navel-gazing, or other self-absorbed practices; indeed, she is not the one controlling the process of spiritual growth. Instead, the Catholic looks inward—and then beyond and above (“ex-centric”)—to the Lord, where she finds her “innermost self.” Hans Urs von Balthasar describes it another way: even after years of psychoanalysis, Simon may have become a more well-adjusted…Simon. It is not until he leaves himself in order to encounter Christ, however, that he would become Peter. This is the intention behind the habit—and vows, and meatless Fridays, and the rosary, and the Stations of the Cross, and all the rest—to encourage within the soul the joyful renunciation of self, to make room in one’s heart for God, and thereby discover who one really is.

While there is much more to the Met show, special attention should go to what, I believe, is the most felicitous blend of the sacred and secular. This would be the “Celestial Hierarchy”: fashions inspired by the angels who, as St. Thomas says, “rank between God and corporeal creatures.” According to Catholic teaching, angels are both like human beings (because they are created, rational substances), and unlike us, in that they have no materiality. It would seem, then, that “looking like an angel” were an oxymoron. On the contrary: angels have provided endless inspiration for artistic masterpieces, from Botticelli’s Annunciation (part of the Met’s permanent collection), to the depictions of incorporeal spirits by angel-named artists (Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and Raphael), to those of their modern disciples. For her angel-themed evening dress, Jeanne Lanvin, a French designer, creates a unique blue dye echoing hues from the cobalt blue of stained-glass, as well as the lapis lazuli Fra Angelico employs. Rodarte’s “Ensemble” blends the radiance of a cherubic angel and the gracefulness of the nun’s habit from Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Finally, Thierry Mugler’s “L’Hiver des Anges” (Winter of Angels) and Roberto Capucci’s “Angelo d’Oro” round out the collection, suggesting the ethereal beauty of the celestial world.

Precisely because angels are invisible, it would seem most unlikely that artists could ever come up with even one “angelic” look. Imagine, then, the improbability that almost two dozen designs in the collection, none of which resemble each other, can nevertheless express the so-called “rumor of angels.” Should not the argument against religious-habits-as-personal-fashion apply here? I would argue no, and here’s why. First, no one is claiming that an image literally captures the likeness of an angel, or of God for that matter. That said, St. Thomas insists in the Summa Theologiae (I, q. 50, art. 4) that if “the angels be not composed of matter and form…it follows that it is impossible for two angels to be of one species.” Think of it: if every angel is its own species, should not its artistic image be equally inimitable? In this collection, I would argue, aesthetics and metaphysics correspond perfectly.

The “Heavenly Bodies” Collection at the Met Cloisters
The “Heavenly Bodies” Collection continues uptown with fashions based on various Catholic themes: religious orders, sacraments (baptism, communion, and marriage), the Blessed Mother, the Crusades, Creation, and the famed “unicorn” tapestries of the Cloisters.

Religious Habits Part II
If the religious habits at the Met Fifth Avenue have a more “costume” vibe to them, those at the Fort Tryon Park location emphasize the spiritual charisms, or gifts, of specific religious communities. (For what it’s worth, someone should inform the curators that there is a big difference between “monks and nuns”—contemplatives who live apart from the world behind an enclosure—and “friars and sisters,” active religious men and women serving within the world.)

In one evening ensemble by Valentino, the black mantle over a white gown echoes the cappa, distinctive of the Order of Preachers, or Dominican religious men and women. The same designer intimates the austere look of the brown Franciscan habit, albeit with more luxurious materials (wool-silk and cashmere). A 1940s “Wedding Dress” by Claire McCardell borrows the simplicity of the Cistercian habit (to facilitate the duties of prayer and work), for a time of austerity in World War II America.

The issue of special charisms associated with different religious orders (and by extension, their habits), raises another aspect of the Catholic imagination, namely, the connection between beauty and moral goodness. Explaining the reason for his presence at the Met Gala, Cardinal Dolan had this to say: “It’s because the church, and the Catholic imagination—the theme of this exhibit—are all about three things: truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature and, yes, even fashion.” His eminence is calling attention to a scholastic category, the transcendental: what that can be said of everything that exists. The three transcendentals—oneness, truth, and goodness—are “convertible” with each other, i.e., they can describe the same thing, albeit from different perspectives. For instance, not everything is red, or male, or five feet tall, but everything is in some way “one” (whole), “true” (knowable), and “good” (desirable), to the extent that it has existence.

As regards the third transcendental, the Catholic imagination recognizes that something can be good in one of two ways. A beautiful thing, according to St. Thomas, is what “pleases the senses” (ST I, 5, 4, ad 1), and is inherently desirable. An action may also be good, or desirable, but in the sense that it conforms to reason (ST Ia-IIae, 18, 1). In short, Catholics have always recognized an inner connection between aesthetics and ethics.

The symbolism of the religious habit reflects this link. Rumer Godden (see above) explains various features of women’s religious vesture that promote virtue by visualizing it: “the scapular…symbolizes the ‘yoke of Christ’; the veil…chastity and obedience and the ‘hidden life’; the ring…a binding of the nun’s life to Christ; (long) skirts…for dignity (and) self-effacement; (and low) heels…because the nun’s life is one of work.” In a self-absorbed world that prizes “negative” freedom (“You can’t make me!”) and selfish individualism, the habit is at once counter-cultural, practical, and attentive to the human condition. It emphasizes “positive” liberty, i.e., freedom to be of service to God and one’s neighbor. It is also economical; one may perform one’s duties without running after—and paying for—expensive, changing fashions.

Yet, the greatest value of the habit is perhaps its insight into the human condition. The religious orders knew intuitively that human beings have the capacity for virtue, but virtue itself does not “come naturally.” For instance, babies may be adorable, but they are inclined to very selfish behavior, in which case children must learn virtue by doing good things over and over again. Fittingly enough, Aristotle calls this process moral “habituation” (ethismos=εθισμος). In the case of religious “habit-uation,” virtue develops as if “from the outside in,” both literally and metaphorically. One adopts an attitude of submission to one’s superiors, assuming tasks that initially strike one as artificial, contrived, and strange, just as wearing the veil or scapular at first seems awkward. Over the course of a lifetime, however, the religious develops “character” (ethos=ἔθος), an inclination toward good behavior, just as one “grows into” the habit. One rightly calls both the beautiful thing and the holy life “good” or desirable.

Aesthetic and Ethical Shock
With this in mind, we address what is, for this viewer, the most disturbing item in the exhibition. (I tried mightily to locate the aforementioned bondage mask but, perhaps by God’s grace, was spared.) Rick Owens’ “Ensemble,” an unattractive mess of wool, cotton, and nylon fabrics thrown together to suggest a monk’s robes, features a strategically-placed “peep hole.” (Yes: you read correctly.) The exhibition describes the garment as a “playful, subversive ‘habit’ [that] evokes the popular literary stereotype of the lecherous, debauched, and scandalous medieval monk, satirized by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.” Conservative Catholics may want to substitute “vile and perverse” for “playful and subversive,” but it may be worth paying attention to this particular piece. Owens, an American designer from California, was raised, according to Wikipedia, in a “conservative, Catholic household” (surprise, surprise), against which he rebelled. Inspired by religious imagery and themes to which he was exposed in Catholic school, he nevertheless came to adopt a complex, fluid attitude toward sexuality, one that reflects his own history. His 2015 collection notably features clothing that—there’s no other way to say this—exposes the penis. According to fashion critic, Brandon Ambrosino, Owens is “very subversively challenging Western cultural institutions—which are simultaneously obsessed with and repulsed by the phallus.” Subversive?

Perhaps. Perhaps American culture (much of which has Puritan roots) suffers from this particular sexual contradiction. If this the case, then, the question becomes: why design clothing in the first place? With all its problems, the Catholic Church is also the Church of Michelangelo, the creator of the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel, who features unabashedly nude figures in the place where Popes are elected. It is the same Michelangelo who said of the undraped human body: “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize that the foot is nobler than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” Of course the nude human body—the whole human body—is an object of singular beauty, indeed God’s masterpiece, as Pope John Paul II once remarked. What is to be gained, then, by “peeping” at one organ to the exclusion of the rest? Is it not at least arguable that by calling attention to the genitals—separated, so to speak, from the entire body—that the designer “fetishizes” them, thereby defeating the purpose of his aesthetic vision?

Disturbing art of this sort makes it tempting to be offended, but it might be better to let the artist have his say. If there is no truth to the criticisms lodged against the Church, then Catholics can rejoice with the Apostles, having been “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:14). In an era of scandal and criminal activity, however, perhaps the present embarrassment of the Church for the sins of certain clerics is not entirely unwarranted (1 Peter 4:15). In any case, such experiences raise the issue of “shock,” both ethical and aesthetic. The meaning of “compunction,” or heartfelt sorrow for one’s sins, has its roots in the word pungere: to pierce, prick, or sting. Compunction is a moral shock to the system, one that is ultimately beneficial if it calls the sinner back from the brink of spiritual destruction. On a more positive note, shock has an aesthetic dimension as well. Drawing from Plato and Pope Paul VI, Benedict (2002, 2009) insists that genuine beauty has the paradoxical effect of both “wounding” the soul (having lost its “original perfection”) and “giving it wings,” or making it yearn for the transcendent beauty of God. In both cases, one feels something, and feels it very deeply. Shock, whether moral or aesthetic, forces us to feel. It therefore has tremendous value for an “anesthetic” culture that does anything it can—to dull pain of any kind. Witness substance abuse or the opioid crisis, to say nothing of the moral insensitivity many have to the tragic—and willful—destruction of human life through abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Shock, of course, has its place, but is it merely gratuitous, or salutary?

The Holy Sacraments
The Cloisters—disassembled brick by brick from European monasteries and reassembled at the northern tip of Manhattan—naturally lend themselves to another theme of the exhibit. The fashions in the Fuentiduena Chapel evoke the themes of Baptism (sad to say, unremarkable), the Eucharist, and Marriage (strikingly beautiful). Karl Lagerfeld creates a simple, lovely wedding gown inspired by French First Communion dresses, thereby combining the allure of both sacraments. Cristobal Balenciaga called his 1967 creation the “one-seam wedding dress,” that is, a garment made of one bolt of silk. Though technically more than one piece, the dress is even more striking because of the setting; the bride contemplates the crucified body of Christ, for whose seamless garment his executioners once threw dice (Jn.19:23). Perhaps the bride is praying that her gown, which expresses her present joy, may one day take on another, deeper beauty, one that only comes about through love—and suffering.

The Early Gothic Hall, with stained glass, statues, and carvings honoring the Blessed Mother, houses the next theme, “The Cult of the Virgin.” Jean Paul Gaultier is inspired by the imagery of, and various titles bestowed upon, the Mother of God. All are respectful, though the designer translates the Marian themes more or less literally, depending upon the garment. One ensemble, curiously entitled “Guadalupe,” is based on the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Blessed Mother’s heart, pierced by a sword “so that the hearts of many may be revealed” (Lk. 2:35), flows through an undulating red sash signifying blood. Proceeding as it does from the breast to the bottom of the gown, it suggests Mary’s maternal compassion for those who suffer. “Lumiere,” a gown with silk chiffon fabric, depicts episodes from the life of Mary. The print, like the stained-glass window directly behind the gown, is a subtle reminder that, just as light is refracted as it passes through glass to produce colors, so too divine grace illumines and transforms the life of the believer in some distinct way. “Regina Maris” (Queen of the Sea), is inspired by the color blue, which has been long associated with Mary. Indeed, one of the titles of Mary is “Star of the Sea,” or stella maris. According to St. Jerome, there is an alternative reading of the expression: stilla maris, or “drop of the sea.” The latter title suggests the mystical advice of St. Paul of the Cross to those who seek God: “The passion of Jesus is a sea of sorrows, but it is also an ocean of love. Ask the Lord to teach you to fish in this ocean. Dive into its depths. No matter how deep you go, you will never reach the bottom.”

The gallery of the famous “Unicorn Tapestries” at the Cloisters features a wedding ensemble by American designer Thom Browne, made of silk organza, tulle, gold bullion, pearls, crystals, glass, mother-of-pearl, and white mink. Whether or not the legend of the Unicorn was intended as an allegory for the life of Christ, the art of tapestry itself is a metaphor of the spiritual life. Just as one side of the tapestry is a riot of threads and knots with no discernible pattern, the other side shows a vision of beauty, order, and balance. Likewise, Catholics realize that events in life often seem confusing and disconcerting, but perseverance in prayer ultimately shows the hand of God at work. Sad to say, Browne’s creation seems more to resemble the back side of the tapestry than it does the front.

Final mention should be made of the fashions inspired by “The Garden of Eden” and “Creation.” Two stunning gowns designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Valentino—one of silk tulle, with gold-embroidered wheat, the other inspired by Lucas Cranach’s painting “Adam and Eve”—remind the viewer that creation is itself a reflection of God’s goodness. Catholics experience God’s beauty—or any other attribute, such as power, or love, or wisdom—indirectly, that is, by analogy.

Jacques Maritain once wrote:

The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of the spirit…. Let one touch the good and Love, like the saints, the true, like an Aristotle, the beautiful, like a Dante or a Bach or a Giotto, then contact is made, souls communicate.

One need not be a fashionista to agree that the search for truth and beauty ultimately leads people to God.

Every experience of goodness in this world—because it “mediates,” or indirectly expresses, one or another aspect of God—is therefore desirable in itself. At the same time, it “whets our appetite” for God: it cultivates within us a yearning to behold the Source of Beauty and Truth directly, infinitely, and without mediation. This is what Catholics call the beatific vision: to behold God, as it were, “face to face” in all his heavenly glory. On this side of heaven, the Catholic Imagination is the constant search for God in the most ordinary of things: the holy fear by which we are “shocked” whenever the Divine Presence chooses to reveal itself.



Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae.

Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.

Balthasar, Hans Urs. Prayer. 1986.

Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. Part Two. Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. 2011.

—. “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” 2002.

—. “Meeting with Artists at the Sistine Chapel,” 2009.

Bernard of Clairvaux. Apology. 12th century. Translated by David Burr.

Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. 1988.

Farrell, John. The Day Without: Lemaitre, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. 2006

Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination. 2001.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies.

Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism. 1930.

Suger. On What Was Done During His Administration. 12th century.

Viladesau, Richard. Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art, and Rhetoric. 2001.

Oscar Wilde quotes: see,,


Fr. Timothy Shea Valentine About Fr. Timothy Shea Valentine

Father Timothy Shea Valentine is a parish priest from the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island. Fr. Valentine holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University, and has taught high school through doctoral level students. His great honor was to serve as an Army Chaplain during two deployments to Iraq.


  1. Brilliant review! An informative walk with Fr Valentine through the 2018 Met Costume Gala! I was worried when he started quoting people and historical texts; suddenly I was back in the classroom feeling a little embarrassment that I was not more familiar with the references! However, Fr Valentine’s style of writing, explantation of the complex, and understanding of the material quickly put me at ease so I could sit back and enjoyed the virtual tour.

    I did not have the opportunity to enjoy the Gala and my understanding of the event was formed from skimming articles that focused on the ‘most controversial and least significant’. Fr Valentine’s review is insightful and entertaining. He not only describes the Collection’s themes, but also ties them back to something deeper within each of us – our relationship to God through art and the senses.

    The contrast and contradiction in the art on our senses is thought provoking and generates reflection. From the classroom, I was suddenly transported outside a gothic monastery in Burgos, Spain, that I visited on vacation a few years ago. While I relaxed with a cup of coffee outside the entrance of the ancient structure, a monk dressed in the traditional brown robe stepped into the street wearing a distinct dark blue Yankees baseball cap! I was shocked by my own surprise, but then chuckled and wished I had been quick enough to snap a photo.

    Great article – Fr Valentine nails it. It erases my preconceived notions of the Gala. If you didn’t attend like me, let Fr Valentine be your tour guide.

  2. Avatar David Wilkins says:

    Fr. Tim Valentine — US Army Major Ret. — gives us an intelligent and delightful handling of the topic of truth, beauty and the Catholic imagination. He reminds us that the Grace and love of Christ gives proper trajectory to the entire ordered universe, including science, art, beauty and even fashion. With at least one doctoral degree, plus two tours of duty in Iraq, this Catholic priest/author has plenty of street credibility.
    In Christ,
    Fr. David Wilkins