There is a gap between that which expresses and that which is expressed. But there is also a point of identity between them. It is the riddle and the depth of all expression that it both reveals and hides at the same time. – Paul Tillich, “Art and Ultimate Reality,” 2.
Now that it is spring, I sometimes wear this shirt with a floral pattern, a sort of Hawaiian: white flowers on red. Recently a friend asked what kind of flowers they were. I didn’t know. She laughed and said that the flowers looked so innocent.
When I was back at my house, I did some research. I identified the flowers as white lilies. And my friend’s (strange) comment started to make a lot more sense. The white lily has been a symbol of innocence, chastity, and purity in Christianity for centuries. It is often a associated with the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. In the Anglican Church is a tradition of a white lily crucifix. Outside Christianity, the white lily has been associated with the Divine as the spilt breast milk of the goddess Hera.
I had never thought that a cheap shirt I ordered online would hold in its fabric an inheritance of transcultural, mystical representation. What were people reading off of me, consciously or unconsciously? I was not intending to wear something excessively chaste, and did red fabric affect the interpretation of the flower? What else in my life carries in its form a history of religious significance? What objects of the so-called secular world were imbued with the symbols of the Church?
Hosted by Rihanna, Amal Clooney and Donatella Versace, the 2018 Met Gala shed a celebrity spotlight on the intersection of art, fashion, culture, and Catholicism, based on the exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” I am in love with this theme! Zendaya sports Joan of Arc chic, Gigi Hadid’s wearing stained glass, Rihanna is a Pope! Reds and metallics and floral patterns overflow from collars, sleeves, busts, and trains. The gala is a spectacle! And, as a student of Theology and the Arts, I am starting to recognize the importance of spectacle.
Spectacle is often associated with a morally bankrupt and or cynical attempt to draw people in to something insubstantial. Risking oversimplification, this was a large part of Protestantism’s critique of the Catholic Church in and after the Reformation. But I question what shallow or “insubstantial” means, because often, when we talk about art with substance, we are referring to spiritual or philosophical meaning in the art. We are not necessarily talking about the art’s material. We are not talking about literal substance. And to some extent is a split where material is secular and meaning is spiritual.
I grew up In Rhode Island, a majority Catholic state. Catholicism influenced the architecture, the art scene, the politics, the law, the food scene, the education system, justice work, and art. Providence, RI, is not homogeneously Catholic--I grew up as a Jew near a very Jewish neighborhood. Nor would I say that such a strong Catholic influence was always beneficial to a pluralistic society, though I think there is much I found valuable in relation to immigrant justice and anti-poverty work. In fact, I really am not interested in the moralism and morality of the Catholic Church. That is a discussion for another time, and one that I do not feel particularly qualified to engage. Rather, I am reflecting on how essential Catholicism’s material, aesthetic presence has been in my life. I know how important the aesthetics of Catholicism have been in others’ lives.
The celebrities are wearing the Church. And I think that is astounding. I have heard people claiming this is cultural appropriation, and that the wearing of these motifs and symbols is offensive. However, Catholic imagery has been all over the world, integrated itself in numerous cultures--often through colonization--and been in artistic dialogue with other religions. Perhaps the critics of the Gala are correct: when I look at the gowns and suits and capes, I am not thinking about morality. I am not thinking about truth. Instead, I am bearing witness to a congregation of signs at the intersections of countless histories. Part of religion is ethics, figuring out how to live rightly in this world. But part of religion precedes even the ethical impulse: astonishment, beauty, terror, love, and awe. Awe before the universe. Awe before the weight of history and culture. Awe before divinity.
Treatises and dialogues, books and liturgies branch from the same tree where the white lilies, red veils, and rosarie belts emerge. Theology and fashion are vastly different media, and yet both can point to a shared history, a shared symbology, a shared encounter with the Holy. What is secular and what is sacred are not so easily distinguishable.
Critique the homogeneity of body shapes. Critique the wealth. Critique the Gala! There is so much to critique, engage, and with which to disagree. But as I look around my apartment, at the Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic, Anglican, Queer, Marxist, Kabbalistic, Blakean, American, Russian, Yiddish, and Cinematic symbologies, I am delighted by the revelation of the Met Gala. Religion is in mainstream media, not as a source of moral authority, not condemned for its hypocrisy and violence, not as an implicit bias or an attack on the separation of Church and State, but celebrated for its material richness and symbolic resonance. The divine, mythological image manifests in unexpected places, and it is the milieu out of which the supposedly mundane arises.