3 Things Catholics Should Learn from the Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ Exhibit


National Catholic Register, 5 October 2018

Catholics should be grateful to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for reminding us of beautiful traditions we never should have forgotten.

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” closes Oct. 8. It has been one of the most successful in the venerable museum’s history — and it contains an enduring lesson for the Church today.

The exhibition — as distinct from the Met Gala evening that provided some distractions upon its launch in early May — was the largest ever staged by the Met, at more than 60,000 square feet in 25 galleries over three locations at two sites.

It attracted more than 1 million visitors, becoming the third-most-popular exhibition ever at the Met, behind the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” (1978-1979), which had more than 1.3 million visitors, and “Mona Lisa” (1963).

“Heavenly Bodies” drew more visitors to the Met than any other exhibition in more than 40 years. I was one of them and I hope that there were many other priests and lay Catholic leaders on hand too, for the Church has three lessons to learn — or better, to remember — from the Met exhibition.

The first “remembering” is of our own Tradition, which the Met exhibition made more visible than can usually be seen in great cathedrals or even the Vatican. The exhibition was marvellously done, with every detail carried off with great skill and precision. From the music that accompanied visitors through the galleries to the layout of the galleries themselves, everything was redolent of our Catholic Tradition. Many of the fashion pieces themselves paid tribute to traditions of clerical and religious dress that have been entirely abandoned.

The descriptions of the items were striking. Well-researched and accessibly presented, they often were explaining aspects of Catholic Tradition that the typical Catholic would no longer know. Sometimes the Met curators were more traditional than the Church is, noting that “the essential garment for both daily and formal dress of the secular clergy is the cassock, or soutane.” In that regard, the Met exhibition was literally more Catholic than the pope, as today the Holy Father asks that his senior advisers, the council of cardinals, meet in business suits.

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