Madonna & The Catholic Church: A Love-Hate Style History

Photo: G/A Unimedia International/REX/Shutterstock.
Nearly four decades on, the most famous Catholic in the world, besides the Pope (and maybe the late John F. Kennedy), might still be Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. ("Veronica" is her confirmation name, by the way.) From the moment she debuted in 1983 with her self-titled dance-pop album (accompanied by magnetic, style-setting videos), Madonna — that name alone! — wore her religious upbringing on her sleeve — or around her neck, if we're going to be literal about it. But the pop legend’s relationship with Catholicism — as a central style aesthetic and inspiration, as a symbol of a fraught, traumatic childhood overcome, as an oppressive system to rebel against — has never been straightforward.
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In fact, Pontiac, Michigan's pride and joy has been confrontational and provocative with the Church from the jump. First pairing a chunky crucifix with a bra, mesh top, rubber bracelets, and a Boy Toy belt buckle, the blonde superstar would later dye her hair back to parochial-school brown and slip on a negligee to dance before burning crosses and get intimate with a Black saint. On her most recent world tour in 2015-2016, she and her dancers wore modified (read: sexy!) nun’s habits and twirled on modified (read: crucifix-shaped) stripper poles to her intentionally-blasphemous song “Holy Water.” Like we said: confrontational.
It’s a thematic concern that’s never completely gone away — even after 13 albums, 69 videos, two marriages, six kids, and even a deep engagement with Kabbalah. So it makes sense, then, that this year’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (and its accompanying star-stuffed gala, which she often attends) was clearly made for Madonna.
In honour of that — and her inevitably cool, likely controversial outfit for the evening — here’s a very brief style history of Madonna, Catholic girl gone bad.
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The moment Madonna became a music and style mega-star of the highest order? Her live performance debut of “Like a Virgin” at the first-ever MTV VMAs in 1984, when she upgraded her downtown dance-punk aesthetic with white wedding lace and an even bigger crucifix. “Ours was a strict, old-fashioned family,” she told People in 1985. “When I was tiny, my grandmother used to beg me not to go with men, to love Jesus, and be a good girl. I grew up with two images of a woman: the virgin and the whore. It was a little scary.”
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Photo: Terry McGinnis/WireImage.
The first of Madonna’s dramatic reinventions came with her third LP True Blue and its controversial lead single, “Papa Don’t Preach.” Both Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Church objected to the song, about a girl discussing her pregnancy with her father; the former argued that it glamourised teen pregnancy, the latter that it celebrated teen, premarital sex and babies born out of wedlock. “Immediately they're going to say I am advising every young girl to go out and get pregnant,” she told The New York Times in 1986. “This song is really about a girl who is making a decision in her life. She has a very close relationship with her father and wants to maintain that closeness. To me it's a celebration of life.” Also: How good is this gamine Madonna look?!
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Photo: G/A Unimedia International/REX/Shutterstock.
Featuring stigmata, burning crosses, and a love scene with a Black, Jesus-like saint, 1989’s “Like a Prayer” remains Madonna’s most overtly Catholic and controversial video. It led to a cancelled endorsement deal with Pepsi and condemnation from the Vatican itself. “My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. When I left home at 17 and went to New York, which is the city with the most sinners, I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life,” she told The Times that year. “But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.”
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Photo: Peter Still/Redferns.
The outrage from the Vatican was even louder during 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour, which featured a simulated masturbation performance that segued directly into a Catholic mass-like segment (stained glass windows, crucifixes, and liturgical costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier). Two concerts in Italy were eventually cancelled due to protests. “I am an ltalian-American, and I am proud of it,” she said at a press conference. “I do not endorse a way of life but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.”
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Photo: Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty Images.
Radical reinvention number we-lost-count: 1998 Ray of Light Madonna. The single, 40-year-old new mum (to Lourdes) dropped her most personal and sonically innovative album, in which she muses about motherhood, fame, and the devastating, early death of her own namesake mother — all grounded in a new spiritual outlook inspired by her immersion in Kabbalah, an ancient, mystical form of Judaism. (Side note: her Botticelli beach hair! Her dewy skin!)

"It's a belief system that gives you tools to deal with life. Many of its principles resemble concepts in Christianity or in Buddhism," Madonna explained to Oprah Winfrey in 2005. "I've never felt more creative. One thing I've learned is that I'm not the owner of my talent, I'm the manager of it. And if I learn how to manage my talent correctly — and if I accept that I'm just channelling things that come from God — the talent will keep flowing through me."
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Photo: Dave Hogan/Getty Images.
She's still into the Catholic stuff, though! In her most literal tribute to Jesus Christ yet, she belted the 1986 ballad "Live to Tell" while mock-crucified to a disco-fied cross for her 2006 Confessions Tour — once again angering the Catholic Church, as well as the Church of England. “I don’t think Jesus would be mad at me and the message I’m trying to send," Madonna told the Daily News of the incident.
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Photo: Philip Ramey/Corbis/Getty Images.
For the 2009 Met Gala ("The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion"), she wore a headline-generating Marc Jacobs-designed Louis Vuitton ruched minidress, styled with dominatrix boots, turquoise bunny ears, and, yep, a relatively dainty crucifix. Mused the Material Girl to The New York Times of her earliest fashion moments: ''When you go to Catholic school, you have to wear uniforms, and everything is decided for you. Since you have no choice but to wear your uniform, you go out of your way to do things that are different in order to stand out."
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Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.
We'd argue that Ms. Ciccone's look for the 2013 Met Gala ("Punk: Chaos to Couture"), a stunning Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci ensemble, was her most inspired. And, oh, look! A whole new way to way to rock a cross!
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Photo: Graham Denholm/Getty Images.
Her 2015-2016 Rebel Heart Tour featured this red kimono designed by Arianne Phillips for the downright medieval opening portion of the show, where Madge and dancers brandished (surprise!) enormous crucifixes like weapons. "I like crosses," she told Rolling Stone in 2015. "I’m sentimental about Jesus on the cross. Jesus was a Jew, and also I believe he was a catalyst, and I think he offended people because his message was to love your neighbour as yourself; in other words, no one is better than somebody else. He embraced all people, whether it was a beggar on the street or a prostitute, and he admonished a group of Jews who were not observing the prophets of the Torah. So he rattled a lot of people’s cages."
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