TWO diverging meanings of “divine” underpin “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This, the largest show in the history of the Met’s Costume Institute, and one of the biggest at the Met overall, is in large part “just divine, dahling,”—an exuberant and luscious treat. In contrast, the rare loan of some 40 ecclesiastical garments and objects from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy at the Vatican—all “dedicated to worship”—are divine in the traditional sense. To unite these two meanings is the goal of Andrew Bolton, the exhibition’s curator. 

The hint that this was an over-reaching ambition was there from the start, with the organiser’s repeated references to taking a tour of the show as going on a “pilgrimage”. Of course the two meanings of divine can merge, and often do, when High Mass in performed in a magnificent cathedral, for example. Other denominations can achieve this, too, as was evident in Windsor at the royal wedding. “Heavenly Bodies” is drawing crowds for good reasons. The show’s production values alone are sensational, with columns of mannequins in golden dresses hanging suspended from the museum’s high ceilings and a very great deal more. But it never does quite marry the two divines. 

The Vatican loans include the silk- and gold-embroidered mantle of Pope Benedict XV; the embroidered and gem-embellished mitre of Pope Leo XIII; papal rings and pectoral crosses; and most extravagant of all, the tiara first worn by Pope Pius IX for Christmas mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1854. It is set with 19,000 precious stones, most believed to be diamonds. More down to earth, literally, but for some perhaps also more touching, are the traditional red, slip-on shoes worn by Pope John Paul II only 20 years ago. 

The Vatican was astute in insisting that its loan be displayed apart from the fashion show. It may be ironic that the underground Costume Institute became the setting for its copes, chasubles and dalmatics—all liturgical vestments. In fact this works in their favour. The otherwise bare rooms allow contemplation for those who seek it. 

The vastly larger parade of high-fashion outfits spreads across the main floor’s Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance art galleries. It carries on in the chapels, galleries and gardens at the Cloisters branch of the Met some eight miles north. Upstairs and uptown, razzle-dazzle and glamour with forays into exhibitionism prevail. There are frocks and gowns that incorporate imagery of the Roman Catholic religion including crosses by the score, as well as densely sequinned frocks by Versace and Dolce & Gabbana which portray the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. There are riffs on the clothes of parish priests, cardinals and bishops; high-fashion angels look down on the crowds of visitors from the top of arched doorways. 

Clothes for men make an appearance too. At the Cloisters, for example, a mannequin becomes a designer monk when robed in a hooded brown wool ensemble by Rick Owens, an American fashion designer. It incorporates a protruding open tube (of the same fabric) at crotch level. Lest the viewer’s thoughts dart to the Church’s paedophilia scandals, the caption directs attention to the bawdy characters in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”—written in the safely distant 14th century. 

A particularly disconcerting display, also at the Cloisters, goes one metaphor too far. A mannequin outfitted in a lavish white-silk couture bridal gown stands alone before a chapel altar. “Ave Maria” plays on a loop. There is no groom visible; it would be a a fashion show’s culminating coup de theâtre; here it is a fashion exhibition’s coup de grâce. This pretty image, instead of uniting the meanings of divine, mixes up two often life-changing sacred rites and appears to diminish both. Poverty and chastity are among the vows taken by nuns, decidedly not those sworn by couture-clad brides in church marriage ceremonies.

In one of the catalogue essays that provide the intellectual underpinning for this exhibition, David Morgan, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, writes that the “robes, mantles and tunics in which saints appear...make the body the material manifestation of spiritual virtue.” While there is plenty of Catholic iconography in the clothes on view at the Met, the spiritual is absent, almost but not quite entirely: A Jean-Paul Gaultier evening dress has a red beaded heart on the left breast, pierced with a sword. From this a rivulet of red silk falls to the floor. Unlike so many other pieces with crosses and such looking merely ornamental, it is exceedingly moving—a work of art. So too is the opulent, pale silk gown by Balenciaga constructed with only a single seam. Both have something divine about them in both senses of the word—as indeed does that bling tiara worn by Pius IX. 

Alas, for the aims of Mr Bolton, these are rare exceptions. Overall, the attempt to merge the two meanings of divine flops—sometimes painfully. For those who simply want to enjoy a fabulous theatrical display, the show is downright infallible.