Back in February, Donatella Versace, Anna Wintour, and more of fashion’s elite arrived in Rome to join Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Catholic Church’s Council for Culture, in offering the media a glimpse at a selection of vestments, headdresses, and ecclesiastical accessories that will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibit, "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination." The launch of the exhibit marks the annual, celebrity-packed Met Gala.
The New York Times’ reporting of the preview noted that Wintour’s red and black outfit matched the color scheme of Cardinal Ravasi’s ensemble, as if it was an intentional nod to the worlds of religion and fashion coming together. But what might have seemed like a comically incongruous photo op actually makes plenty of sense right now: Between pop culture’s perennial fascination with Catholicism and the world’s first "woke Pope," the Catholic Church is perfectly poised for this moment — at least in terms of its aesthetics.
Anyone who’s set foot in a Catholic church has observed the opulent visual language of the institutional Church. The stained glass windows, endless rows of votive candles, embroidered priestly vestments, and vaulted ceilings all send a clear and reverent message to the visitor: You are now in a divine space.
That feeling of transportation, of immersion, only increases if you stay for Mass, in which the heavy scent of incense fills the air and attendees (practicing Catholics, at least) are asked to imbibe the body and blood of Christ. Diane Winston, MS, PhD, professor of media and religion at University of Southern California, calls Catholicism a sensual religion in the most literal sense. To experience Catholicism is to experience not just a religion but an aesthetic, too — and that’s hardly accidental. "[Catholicism] is all about beauty," she says. "The Catholic Church has been very wealthy for a long time, so they’ve been able to accumulate amazing artwork, beautiful religious vestments, [and] amazingly built cathedrals."
Dr. Winston explains that the physical beauty displayed in Catholicism, from its churches to its services to its ritual clothing, is meant to convey the Church’s overall authority and proximity to God. As a result, a very specific, ornate aesthetic came to be associated with (if not directly linked to) holiness.
That’s why, when filmmakers, writers, and other artists and pop culture creators wish to tell a religious story or convey someone’s devout religiosity, they tend to employ Catholic imagery, says Erica Andrus, PhD, professor and senior lecturer specializing in religion in America at the University of Vermont. "That’s a visually rich repertoire to draw from… It’s dramatic and visually pleasing," but it’s not so unfamiliar that it will go over an American audience’s heads, she explains.
Just this year, we’ve seen a TV revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and heard serious rumors of a The Passion Of The Christ sequel. Both depict the crucifixion and their respective plots hinge upon the events of Holy Week (the days leading up to Easter Sunday). While Christians of any denomination can observe Holy Week, it’s usually observed more strictly within Catholicism. And, as Dr. Winston points out, the crucifix is a uniquely Catholic symbol: "The Catholic crucifix [shows] Jesus on the cross. Seeing the body, seeing the physicality of his suffering, is very different than many Protestant churches, [which] use just the cross, without Jesus." Jesus’ sacrifice is heavily emphasized in Catholicism — as it is in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Passion Of The Christ.
We’ll have to wait and see how the Passion sequel fares, but NBC’s live broadcast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera chronicling Jesus’ final days (with pop/R&B singer John Legend in the title role) drew 9.4 million viewers. "Religion can be good business," says James Martin, Jesuit priest and author. He adds that it’s actually part of the pop culture cycle to see Catholic motifs crop up: "These things come in waves."
Perhaps the greatest wave in fairly recent memory started with Madonna’s cross-laden accessories in her 1984 music video for "Like A Virgin" and hit a crest five years later in her "Like A Prayer" video, in which she lounges around a chapel in a negligee, makes out with a Black Jesus/saint figure, invokes stigmata imagery, and, most iconically, dances in a field of burning crosses. Controversial? Yes. Sexy? We mentioned the negligee, right? No matter how you feel about Madonna’s willingness to turn elements of her religious upbringing into accessories, there’s no denying that she popularized the use of Catholic themes in pop-artistic works consumed by millions of fans.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and you have the overtly Catholic look and feel of The Boondock Saints, Romeo + Juliet, and even Lady Gaga’s music video for "Judas." From their settings to their costumes to their props, these works employ the Catholic aesthetic not just to suggest a belief system, but to cultivate an air of extravagance and excess that borders on fanatical. In all three cases, they’re remembered in no small part for their iconic religious imagery.
“The primary image of the Catholic priest in 2002 was the pedophile. The primary image of the Catholic priest in 2018 is Pope Francis. That’s a sea change.”
James Martin, Jesuit preist and author
So, no, it isn’t new to see Catholicism appear in pop culture, and it has proven to be both popular and stylistically effective. The question is: Why has it taken until 2018 for Wintour and her ilk to plan "fashion’s biggest night out" around the Catholic aesthetic? Despite the long-standing place of Catholicism in mainstream storytelling, there remains something unique about this moment in the Church that makes paying tribute to its visual legacy especially palatable, even appealing, to a mainstream audience. And, yes, Pope Francis and his rise to wokeness has something to do with it.
Argentina-born (he is the very first Pope from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere) Pope Francis came as a surprise to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Dr. Andrus says, citing his openness to interfaith communication and his willingness to recognize such global issues as poverty and climate change. In the five years since his appointment, Pope Francis has publicly discussed family planning, the Church’s acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, and the important role women play in the Church. Granted, he didn’t call for any radical changes to how these issues are already viewed within Catholicism (he opposes gay marriage, does not believe women should be priests, and approves of the Church’s ban on contraception). But, the simple fact that he willingly speaks on these topics (and shows even a little leniency) reflects a desire to engage a larger public. "[He] gave Catholicism more cache [with a wider audience]," Dr. Andrus says. "[Under his leadership,] the Catholic Church doesn’t just represent something old, traditional, and musty-fusty."
Pope Francis’ progressive approach is thrown into even sharper relief when you consider what the Catholic Church was best known for prior to his appointment. "The primary image of the Catholic priest in 2002 was the pedophile," Rev. Martin says. "The primary image of the Catholic priest in 2018 is Pope Francis. That’s a sea change." Would a Met exhibition and gala based on the Catholic imagination succeed in the early aughts, at the height of the Church’s global sex abuse (and cover-up) crisis? Not without an uproar from the secular and non-Catholic public.
Only a month into his papacy, Pope Francis called for swift action against Catholic officials accused of abuse. In 2017, he acknowledged that the institution was decades late to addressing its sex abuse problem. Of course, our current pope’s modern sensibilities don’t magically clear the Church’s record of all scandal. Just this week, it was announced that Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell will stand trial for a history of abuse. According to CNN, he’s the most senior official in the Church to be charged.
Nevertheless, Rev. Martin says, "It’s really hard to overestimate [Pope Francis’] impact on people’s feelings toward the Catholic Church." Rev. Martin suggests that, were it not for Pope Francis’ reputation as the "people’s pope" and the changes he set into motion from within the Church, Cardinal Ravasi might not have posed for photos with Wintour and Versace at the Vatican-hosted preview: "It’s not simply that people like the Pope, and that makes them more open to Catholicism — it’s that the Vatican is more open to events like this because of Francis."
Of course, to say that the Met and its institutional heads were waiting around for Pope Francis to arrive on the scene would be a gross exaggeration. "There’s always an efflorescence of curiosity about the Church when things change," Rev. Martin says. In other words, this isn’t the only time in history that the Met could have chosen to celebrate the Catholic imagination, but now, when the Pope is interested in not only connecting with the larger world but actually reflecting it in the Church’s values seems like as good a time as any. What better way to ride the latest wave of pop culture’s interest in Catholicism?
Whatever your opinion on the Catholic aesthetic (and the Catholic Church, for that matter), come May 7, mainstream stars like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner will attempt to interpret biblical tropes at their most baroque via red carpet fashion. This particular spectacle has been a long time coming, but that won’t make it any less transporting: The looks are sure to be lavish, architectural, and injected with at least a hint of danger, a glimpse at the eternal fight between good, evil, obedience, and temptation. The Met wants to take us to church — and that invitation is hard to resist.