Dresses at the Cloisters—Bringing Holy Art Alive

In a Met Museum exhibit, top-end designers like Dior, Chanel, Galliano and Balenciaga seem to gaze up at God.

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Posted in , Jun 5, 2018

Heavenly Bodies at the Cloisters

The Cloisters is a terrific museum of medieval art in my upper Manhattan neighborhood. I jog around it many mornings a week, but haven’t been inside in a while. Until recently.

Right now it’s hosting an exhibit sponsored by the Met museum–of which it is a part–of liturgical garments and fashion: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

I’m clueless about fashion–just ask my wife–but I love religious art, and something magical seems to happen when you put these fancy dresses in the same rooms with sculpture, paintings, frescoes, stained glass windows and tapestries.

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I found myself looking differently at ancient drapery next to new high-versions of the stuff that are (I guess) meant to worn.

In one exquisite Romanesque chapel the space is suddenly filled with a stunning white bridal dress complete with veil. All at once the room is returned to its sacred roots–a point Catholic columnist Ross Douthot made about the exhibit.

You see the room as a holy place and not just a bunch of old stones. More than one viewer seemed to be reminded of the recent royal wedding. I overheard one say, “Meghan Markle and Prince Henry…He’s the one who married up.” Made me laugh.

I think of medieval art as the YouTube and Netflix of its time. Most people couldn’t read. But they could see stories from the Bible come to life on the walls and in windows of their churches.

In another gallery I glanced at a dazzling dress that would seem meant for the red carpet and then compared it to what one of the Wise Men wore. If ever there was a red carpet moment, wasn’t it the Nativity?

I studied an exquisite Schiaparelli scrap of 20th-century embroidery–an angel’s wing–and then looked at how the nearby seraphim and cherubim were clothed in sculpture and stained glass.

The danger of putting holy art into museums is it can seem static, preserved under glass, meant only to be looked at with a critical eye. Relics of the past.

But this art felt like it was curiously and prayerfully present right now. How lovely to look at top-end designers like Dior, Chanel, Galliano, Balenciaga and sense them gazing at God.

The exhibit is up through October. If you’re visiting New York, don’t miss it. Both at the Cloisters and also at the Met on Fifth Ave where exquisite garments from the Sistine Chapel are on view.

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