Catholicism is a visual religion, and those who want liturgy to be plain should think again
If the amount of attention you garner is a measure of success, then the Met Gala must be counted an absolute triumph. Never have so many rich and colourful dresses been discussed (or excoriated) in such extravagant language. Our magazine has pictures of the dresses here. Our editor, Luke Coppen, provides links to some of the commentary in his Morning Catholic Must reads here.
I am in the uncomfortable position of knowing very little about the fashion industry and dress-making in general, and agreeing with more or less everyone who has had something to say on the matter.
For a start many of the costumes were ridiculous, and not the sort of thing you could wear anywhere except presumably at the Met Gala; and even then, they must have been cumbersome and uncomfortable. I can’t really see anything remotely similar flying off the shelves some time soon.
At the same time the Gala and the accompanying exhibition (which runs until October, so I might just go and see it, as I will be in New York before it closes) do have a serious point underlying them. Catholicism is a visual religion. In Catholicism, you look at things and there is usually plenty to look at. Moreover, Catholicism prepares you for eternal life where you will look at the Beatific Vision forever. So, what you look at here on earth is an encouragement to strive for heaven, and a taste of heaven on earth.
Catholics have traditionally taken this seriously and have had some success in the field. Over the years I have written about various pieces of art which have stuck me as quintessentially Catholic, indeed, tools of evangelism – these include statues, paintings, mosaics, buildings, metalwork and vestments. It is the last two, particularly the last, that seem to be the focus of the Met’s exhibition.
The fashion show may have backfired by causing offence: after all, a mitre is a sacred thing, and belongs on the head of a bishop and no one else. But, and it is a useful but, the Met Gala should remind us that all who want our churches and liturgies to be plain are way out of step with Catholic tradition, which is by its very nature effusive and even extravagant. The sheer extravagance of the frocks is a reminder that Catholic churches are places of extravagance too. God has poured out his love towards us, and we in turn try to pour out everything in our hearts towards Him. Some contemporary Catholics are a bit sniffy about embroidery and cloth of gold (they are much more at home with polyester, sadly) but they miss an important point: the embroidery on a chasuble is the prayer of the person who made it, and its intricacy of design exists to stir up a similar prayer in the heart of the beholder.
You have to be very devoted to become a good embroiderer, I am sure, and that too is of importance: beautiful vestments are a sign of devotion. That is a word that needs to return to its key place in the Catholic lexicon. Devotion, remember, is never modest, hardly ever quiet, at least not the way we do it.
Perhaps the Met Gala has given us a pointer at just the moment we need it. The new puritans may well want everything made plain and ‘simple’ (though real plainness is anything but). Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a crib on her head and looking like a Borgia Pope shows us that there is a different way of doing things, and that perhaps God has a sense of humour too, as well as some tolerance as well towards over-the-top taste.