This one was written by Sarabeth Weszely.

There’s been a bit of a buzz, at least around New York City, about the recent Met Gala and its corresponding exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” “Heavenly Bodies” is the largest Costume Institute exhibition yet, split between three separate exhibits in the Met and Met Cloisters. Most of the designers are practicing or former Catholics, who, with the Vatican’s permission and aid, worked for over a year around the theme of Catholicism’s belief, tradition, hierarchy, and history.

Some Catholics (and non-Catholics) have accused the Met of cultural appropriation and irreverence due to its playful and occasionally sexualized designs inspired by Catholicism. I’ve visited the exhibits a few times now and am left with more open-ended interests than clear critiques or appraisals.

The first exhibit, on the lower, windowless level of the Met, displays historic clothing from Catholic tradition, largely from the Baroque era. Extravagance is the main means by which these wardrobes point towards transcendence. The stories of the Christian faith are stitched into white silk robes, raised up in glass cases, in the shape of a body that doesn’t fill them. Everything is clean, jewel-filled, and large. Artifacts from church treasuries are given the title “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” and little commentary is given as to whether the irony was intended or not.

Upstairs, this year’s gala designs are exhibited on white plastic mannequins, scattered throughout the Byzantine wing. Just inside the entrance, a video of Federico Fellini’s 1972 satirical fashion show entitled “Ecclesiastical Fashion Show” plays on a loop.

Suspenseful orchestral music plays overhead. With one or two exceptions, the room is filled with all female bodies, dawning extravagant dresses that rather aggressively merge with the ancient Byzantine art while maintaining basic Catholic styles.

A few necklines plunge. Forestry and sunrays emanate from virgins, as if their life of restraint culminated into a potential energy that could spill from their pores. One of many Virgin Marys levitates above the exit. I feel a sense of reverence I don’t know how to qualify.

The third exhibit, located about six miles uptown in the formerly monastic Cloisters museum, sprawls, and I by no means can cover is breadth. Female mannequins in wedding dresses, baptismal gowns, ambiguous black eveningwear. A red and white dress devoted to female menstruation, which seems to flow down the mannequin as if baptizing her as well. A room of crusades costuming. One wing of colorful dresses filled with reproductive flora and fauna. Two male bodies wearing modern monastic robes with holes cut out of the crotch. One is left with the impression that pious faith is largely for women, and as there is no performative element to the fashion exhibit, the question of objectification is raised. I don’t solely mean this in a gendered sense, but that faith is literally treated as accessory.

To play devil’s advocate to my own critique, however, I consider this provocative metaphor from the New York Times: “Holy vestments serve in the transubstantiation of wine and bread into blood and body, and in a similar way these secular garments also turn the Met’s medieval collection back into objects of worship.”

I am not Catholic (uppercase C) and am not going to attempt to evaluate the merit of Catholic complaints against the exhibit. And I am not foreign to the sharp feeling of being misrepresented, as much as I advocate for the Church to be slow to defend herself. But the question of cultural appropriation in art, faith and history is a discussion for another time.

Here, I want to talk about the Art of this. The exhibit curator Andrew Bolton said in a speech about the Gala, “What is holy resides not in beauty alone.” This statement both invites criticism (the exhibit’s Western standard of beauty, female objectification, elevation of extravagant wealth) and also asks its viewer to not immediately write off “Heavenly Bodies” as altogether un-heavenly.

Author Madeleine L’Engle describes the life of faith and art as “groping in the darkness towards wholeness.” That groping gesture is what I often allude to as “beauty” in a work of art, but it is also hard to control, and can therefore just as hastily be referred to as messy, irreverent, or ugly. Reverence, in a world like this, is hard to picture. Often, it is found in displays of beauty and truth. Occasionally, it is more visible when printed in a dark room from a negative of all it’s not.