ROME—You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the over-the-top homage to holiness at Monday night’s Met Gala honoring the new exhibit Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, but it sure helps. Before the austerity ushered in by Pope Francis when he was elected in 2013, Catholics were quite used to bedazzled clerics and glitzy rituals to celebrate their faith.
After all, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes at a Vatican ceremony or inside St. Peter’s Basilica to see pretty much the exact same ensembles, from Rihanna’s gilded papal mitre to Madonna’s veiled crucifix-laden crown, that adorned the red carpet event. And don’t forget, Pope Benedict XVI quite famously wore Prada loafers—and among the items on loan to the museum is a papal tiara with 18,000 diamonds and a mix of 1,000 emeralds, sapphires, and rubies that had to be flown to New York with a private bodyguard.
The Vatican press office has chosen to make no official comment on the event, instead telling The Daily Beast they will “leave the comments to those in New York” and that “the exhibit speaks for itself.” But the Vatican did send its Sistine Chapel choir to New York to perform at the gala and there were plenty of priests in attendance who didn’t seem offended one bit.
Father James Martin, a prolific author and supporter of Pope Francis, was a special guest to the event, tweeting that many people came up to him to compliment him on the “authenticity” of his priestly wardrobe. “Actually said to me at the Met Gala tonight: ‘I love your costume.’ ‘Is that, like, for real?’ ‘Funky outfit!’ ‘You’re the best dressed dude here, bro.’ (High fives me.) ‘You look just like the real thing.’ And, truly: ‘I love that you got dressed up as a sexy priest’.” Martin tweeted, adding, “Those are verbatim.”
He wasn’t the only cleric caught up in the moment. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, mingled with Donatella Versace, one of the event’s co-hosts and a devout Catholic, prior to the gala. He even helped present a press conference on behalf of the Vatican ahead of the exhibition opening, which was completely blessed by the Vatican in Rome. “In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness, and beauty of God is reflected all over… even in fashion,” Dolan, who wore a black cassock and cardinal red sash, said. “Thanks to the Vatican for its historic cooperation. I’m honored to be here.”
The fact that there has been no real criticism of the Met Gala from the church is most likely attributed to the fact that the savvy Vatican certainly knew what it was getting into. The annual Met Gala is not exactly a cloistered event and the Vatican is smart enough to know what sort of costumes “interpretations of Catholic imagination,” which was the official dress code, might inspire.
The church had ample time to come to terms with what might happen. Anna Wintour reportedly spent years organizing the exhibition, visiting the Vatican to personally negotiate which items would be sent to the Met and how they would be displayed. There is even a tasteful video to prove the unboxing of the items was respectful. Versace, Dolan, and other influential Catholics, aided by the Vatican Museum’s new female director, Barbara Jatta, all played a role in not only securing the items, but assuring the Holy See that their precious vestments would be seen by millions of visitors to the Met during the exhibit which is just the sort of subliminal evangelism the Vatican likes.
Some of those in attendance even reflected on their faith. Jimmy Fallon told the Catholic website Crux that he was inspired to become an actor through his Catholic upbringing. “I was an altar boy for years. It’s very theatrical, there’s something about the altar,” he said. “You’re kind of on stage a little bit when you’re performing as an altar boy, ringing the bells, and my parents would come see me. I’m there doing 6:30 am Mass. It’s almost like a show, it’s very theatrical.”
George Clooney, whose wife, Amal, was a co-host of the evening, also told Crux that the evening reminded him of his early Catholic days. “You know I was an altar boy,” Clooney told the website on the red carpet. “I was a good Catholic boy, and I know about the Catholic Church.”
If Vatican conservatives bristled to see Madonna, a performer who was condemned by the church in 1989 for her song “Like a Virgin,” and Katy Perry, who is in an epic legal battle with a group of nuns in a California convent over property she wants to buy, grace the exhibit opening—dripping in crucifixes and donning angel wings—they didn’t say a word, at least not on the record. After all, the Met display will give a nearly six-month homage to Catholicism, which will last far longer than the sexy selfies and pagan paparazzi photos of the gala event.