By Maria Grizzetti
Five hundred years before Christ walked on earth Euripides was writing dramatic lines for Hecuba, Queen of Troy, in his Trojan Women. Thinking herself betrayed by the gods, she refuses them worship, yet as she grieves the death of her son, she utters a pagan attempt at a prayer:
Thou deep Base of the World, and thou high Throne
Above the World, whoe’er thou art, unknown
And hard of surmise, Chain of Things that be,
Or Reason of our Reason; God, to thee
I lift my praise, seeing the silent road
That bringeth justice ere the end be trod
To all that breathes and dies.
—Trōiades, Gilbert Murray, transl., 1915
Our contemporaries seek God much like Hecuba does in the lyrical drama of the fifth century B.C. Holy paganism is not a novelty of the modern era. Today Hecubas model on runways in Paris and Shanghai, in New York and Milan. We ourselves seek the Unknown God in the everyday material indulgences of our great cities, amid the wanton consumerism of all that is fleshly—and secretly, quietly, we either despair or hope.
This drama of the human search for the sacred is also evidently unfolding in the great cultural moments of our time.
The eyes of the worlds of fashion and art are on the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (now through October). This moment of cultural significance is an opportunity to reflect on how Catholicism informs the arts, and how the faith can perfect those who behold them.
Consider that fashion media, and the multi-billion dollar industries behind it, sell an image of the human form that is highly edited for idealized perfection—one that leaves little room for reality. Fashion design follows on this trend, and proposes a standard of style that emphasizes the unreal. Modern cultural trends propose a surreal vision of the human form, and a correspondingly surreal standard of style.
The Met Gala exemplified this surreal attempt at rendering the “Catholic Imagination” in costumed ensembles that provoked scandal before they instilled awe. Ross Douthat reviewed the event and points out that the Catholic faith cannot be reduced to garments on a red carpet. “Catholicism remains a living faith … When a living faith gets treated like a museum piece, it’s hard for its adherents to know whether to treat the moment as an opportunity for outreach or for outrage.”
Against this backdrop of show-stopping excess and vulgarity, Heavenly Bodies also divulges deep fascination with a different standard of beauty: an eternal one. The hallowed halls of the Metropolitan contain human artistic achievement spanning millennia. Now they contain the visual manifestation of what happens when the sacraments, religious orders, devotions, and the sacred rituals of the Catholic faith inform the arts of high fashion.
The juxtaposition of the inherently religious and the explicitly secular, even sacrilegious, can be confusing. There are clear dividing lines between the sacred and the profane. At the Met, a collection of magnificent vestments from the Sistine Chapel sacristy are on display along with garments that reveal deep misunderstanding, and at times intentional deconstruction of religious habits or liturgical garb. There is explicit subversion of tenets of the faith, and desecration of her symbols. Despite this reduction of the Catholic imagination to personal opinion or disbelief, what is more impressive, however, is the visibly sincere attempt many designers make to imagine Catholicism as it truly is, and to render it authentically from the peripheral vantage point the secular world has of the realms of the consecrated.
This does not deny that there is the risk of great loss if we assent simply to the cultural dimension of the faith art of this kind expresses and communicates. We would be selling Catholicism and our culture short in doing so. To this end, Douthat makes a corrective worth noting: “The only plausible approach for Catholicism is to offer itself, not as a chaplaincy within modern liberalism, but as a full alternative culture in its own right—one that reclaims the inheritance on display at the Met, glories in its own weirdness and supernaturalism, and spurns both accommodations and entangling alliances.”
The interplay of the sacred and the profane is normative in art, and has a redemptive place in the Catholic faith. In 1999 John Paul II wrote a letter to artists wherein he reflects on the truth that the work of redemption infuses every aspect of human creativity:
… the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.
Heavenly Bodies is an example of a “bridge to religious experience.” It incarnates the interplay between the mundane and the sacred—between what is lost and what will be redeemed. The point of connection in this interplay is of critical importance, since it is the human body.
The extension of Catholic symbolism to the design of haute couture garments says something about the body as seen through the lens of glory: the material is clothed in the immaterial, in the substance of things that are beyond the worldly and tend to perfection, and to an eternal destiny. The human body becomes the canvas upon which the universal desire for redemption is expressed in millions of micro stitches sewn by the hands of Benedictine nuns, or in thousands of hand-sewn beads on a collection of Dolce and Gabbana dresses inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna, or in the extravagant golden Chantilly lace Yves Saint Laurent uses to drape a statue of the Madonna.
Our thin cultural language needs to encounter the rich Catholic imagination if it is to gain a new substance. We need to think and believe anew that what was lost is Eden will be recovered in Paradise. This vision of redemption and beauty stakes everything on the munificent extravagance of the Incarnation. The Catholic imagination encapsulates the drama of redemption and supplants the thin language of wanton excess that permeates our culture. It does more than simply “engage”: it liberates. Moreover, it becomes an instrument of Christ’s mission: “I have come to save what is lost” (Luke 19:10).
Perhaps it requires the House of Valentino to design a gown that depicts the Genesis vision of original beatitude sewn on stunning silk tulle to reveal a bit of what is at stake. Here, designers’ imaginations straddle sin and redemption, human fallenness and eternity, ignorance and truth. Their haute couture mastery renders anew the theology of grace, weaving a modern and glorious fabric of faith.
Hecuba pleaded with an unknown god five centuries before the Word was made flesh. Five hundred years after her, St. Paul encountered another holy paganism on the hill of the Areopagus, and seeing the altar erected there to the unknown god, he preached the risen Christ to Athenian elites. The designers who crown runways in Paris and Milan with glittering garments in our time are discovering Catholicism anew. Might fashion be the altar for the oblation of their creativity to an unknown Creator? Their pleading appeal to Mystery? An unknown prayer that what is lost may be saved?
The Catholic Imagination answers with a resounding “yes.”
All flesh yearns for redemption, whether it be draped in sackcloth, or a religious habit, or the striking finery of a Valentino gown. How magnificent would it be if the Catholic vision of salvation were the final stroke on each canvas of flesh and blood? The fabric of faith demands that we add our stitches to the masterpiece.
Draped in Grecian glory, Hecuba lifts her praise; the Incarnation continues to be unveiled at the Metropolitan.