All bodies are holy: heavenly bodies, juxtaposition, and weary women

A few weeks ago I was in New York City for a conference, and found a couple hours to visit the Armenian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On my way out of that very fine exhibit, I accidently wandered into the “big show,” Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  This huge and multifaceted exhibit has captured praise and awe as well as damning critique because, for some, it was seen to be mocking and belittling Roman Catholicism. I found it enchanting – an amazing experience of Catholic imagination. The exhibit was packed with people – listening to their reactions and conversations was the first of many revelations. The juxtaposition – in the central large hall – of beautiful medieval religious art, papal vestments and other items on loan from the Vatican, haunting music, and modern fashion designs full of religious echoes, created a place for wonder and questions which for me, a few days later, invited this reflection. So, what follows is juxtaposition (with many thanks again to Gordon Lathrop), Heavenly Bodies at the Met and its contribution to the worldwide work of museums to bring serious cross-cultural conversations to life through material culture, and the current despair of many women in the US.

Lathrop’s use of juxtaposition for understanding liturgical structure as meaning has been a staple in liturgy classrooms for years now. “The thesis operative here is this: meaning occurs through structure, by one thing set next to another. The scheduling of the ordo, the setting of one liturgical thing next to another in the shape of the liturgy, evokes and replicates the deep structure of biblical language, the use of the old to say the new by means of juxtaposition.” (Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, 33) Lathrop’s work continues to generate new applications through new juxtapositions, bearing fruit in successive generations of scholars. In an article in the journal Liturgy (2004), Mark I. Wegener exemplifies this as he examines the close parallels between liturgical juxtapositions and literary metaphors. First, he admits how difficult even a definition of metaphor is: “it is close to impossible to discover a definition of metaphor that would satisfy everyone who treats the subject. But for starters, we can affirm that a metaphor happens when you talk about one thing in terms that properly refer to another. It is the process of setting two normally unrelated ideas side by side that creates a new idea, and perhaps a new reality. That is metaphor.” Drawing on Jeremy Begbie, Wegener moves to works of art (visual and aural), built on metaphor (and juxtaposition): “the work of art draws from the great store of the diffuse inchoate experience of our ordinary life, so that our existence . . . is embodied in the work of art. We surrender ourselves to it, just as we surrender ourselves to a metaphor…” (Voicing Creation’s Praise, 233) Is every act of liturgy a work of art? If constructed through juxtaposition and communicated via metaphor, then yes, every act of liturgy is metaphorically real – evocatively naming what cannot be fully comprehended and both pointing to and participating in the greater reality which is signified. And art “makes sense” because it triggers the imagination flowering from something partially remembered and something partially known.

Heavenly Bodies, which has just ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been the most heavily attended exhibit ever put on by the Costume Institute. In their introductory description, the museum writes that the exhibit “features a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.” The President and CEO of The Met, David H. Weiss, goes on to say “the Catholic imagination is rooted in and sustained by artistic practice, and fashion’s embrace of sacred images, objects, and customs continues the ever-evolving relationship between art and religion.” The Curator in charge of The Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, adds “fashion and religion have been long intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another…in a relationship that has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.” But the ‘glue’ holding together this particular juxtaposition of Catholic imagination and fashion is women, in the form of idealized bodies dressed in attire that historically is both in continuity and strikingly at odds with history. For the creators of the exhibit it is women and women’s fashion which provide “an interpretative context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism,” [specifically the] “more than 150 ensembles, primarily womenswear, from the early 20th century to the present.” How do female mannequins dressed in clerical garb interpret an exhibit on heavenly bodies and catholic imagination?

The combination of a couple years of #MeToo, the recent fight over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a US supreme court justice, and the ongoing revelations of the breadth of sexual abuse in the church has captured the imagination of many women – both those long weary of the fight for equality and those who surprised themselves by engaging in the public square for the first time. The #MeToo movement and the charges brought against Kavanaugh are about sexual harassment and sexual assault on women, realities of every century, but the combination of events in the US appear to be reaching a public breaking point, especially in light of recent acts of violence so closely linked to poliitical polarizations. Perhaps it was art again, this time in a photograph, that best captured the despair of many survivors of sexual assault following a protest in Washington DC. A dejected woman sits on a bench in Washington DC following the protests against the supreme court nomination – there is nothing glamorous about her – only weary sadness and resignation. Her body language seems to say ‘there is no hope.’

During my visit, the audience packing the Heavenly Bodies Met exhibit presented in three primary groups: there were students and professionals in the fashion industry who came for professional reasons, there were young women (teens and twenties) who came to see what the fuss was about, and there were middle aged (and older) women who seem to have come for an affirmation of imaginative rebuttal to the systems which have failed them. The conversations all around the hall were the giveaway. The beautiful medieval images in statues were almost all Marian or female saints – the strength of St. Bridget writing at her desk seemed to attract much attention: “how did she get men to listen to her?” was a frequent type of question around her statue. The stylized fit of liturgical vestments and clerical attire on female forms took classically feminized texture and embellishment to a juxtaposition with something else – the beauty of traditional vestments and women’s bodies creating a third thing, delight and surprise, a tantalizing symbol of things not generally put together. Again and again, the third demographic, older women, stood with smiles and voiced in so many words “this makes me so happy…this gives me hope.” Things not presumed to go together were together in a splendid curation of beauty and cultural adaptation – with no small measure of politics and hope.

In giving many presentations to clergy groups over the past two years, I have often despaired at how either priests themselves, or parish liturgy committees, seem to have given up on the power of symbols – what you see is what you get, why take the time for beauty, for ambiguity, for the evocative, for what communicates apophatically in liturgy? We seem to be, in my neighbourhood, in one camp or the other – dreary didactic parish liturgy, or holy entertainment in vesperal candles, lights, and professional choirs. While not pretending that the gathering at the Met was made up of people from all socio-economic groups, there was a tremendous variety of people and cultures and a desire to soak in the multimedia experience that challenged all of us to ‘make sense’ of our senses in the symbolic and evocative experience. If art, metaphor, and for liturgy, the essential nature of symbolic articulation, connects the “experiences of our ordinary lives” with the mystery of God with us and for us, how can we not embrace the challenges of juxtapositions, meanings begun but not completed? And, if museums can inspire people to change the world, or at least face the problems of the world with exhibits that delight and surprise and even confuse, should not churches be more courageous too?


One comment

  1. This sounds wonderful!

    From a UK context, and thinking also of the call from the Youth Synod for more cheerful (whatever the right word was) liturgy, I would say that we’d all like better ritual celebrations, but many churches just don’t have the human or other resources to do it.

    And it’s not just women who are ‘tired.’ So are so many of us priests.


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