This evening is the first Monday in May, when the Met Gala is held and the Costume institute opens one of the largest exhibits its ever devised, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. After reported multiple negotiations between Anna Wintour and the Vatican, the exhibit was deemed a go and as of today we will all get a glimpse of what could potentially be one of the most interesting exhibits to date. Catholic symbols are so interwoven into many cultures, it is clear this will be an intriguing look at how fashion relates to everything from the Pope to the Virgin Mary. One of the countries that this is very prevalent is Brazil. After living there over 5 years, I was very aware how the Catholic religion of the Portuguese had mixed with African and indigenous cultures. It infused their fashion and jewelry in a very deep manor.
Symbols abound in Brazil…While writing my thesis on indigenous identity in Brazil and the United States, I discovered just how powerful religious iconography could be, when I saw parallels between early depictions of indigenous women as America and the notion of Mary and the anti-Mary or savage woman. While this was one element of a very long thesis, Catholic imagery has long interested me. From texts such as that by Paul Koudounaries, whose photographs of the early jewel adorned Christian martyrs and saints in underground tomb amaze, to Madonna’s virginal performance, I was hooked. Madonna famously used key components of the religion: like virgins, saints, and martyrs in her musical performances. Her early work especially, really demonstrates her mastery of symbolism.
For the Catholic religion, symbols become the incarnate or earthly representation of that which is held to be sacred and holy. It become even clearer over the years these notions of “saints” and “sinners” were part of an elaborate symbolic relationship between Catholicism, Christianity, power, and culture. The adornment associated with Catholicism is a complex narrative of clothing, ritual, and jewelry. One that they brought with them to the Americas, Africa, and beyond. One can also see some of these Catholic references in Georgian and early 1800s Italian jewelry, Victorian Momento Mori pieces, early Byzantine jewelry, and other antique examples which we will illustrate below.
Catholicism has a lot of saints, and in each location where they brought the religion with them this varied. For instance, the negotiation between Catholicism and Brazil led to the creation of Afro-Catholic religions, various new Brazilian saints, and adornments. One example of jewelry which portrays this relationship are the pendants depicting Our Lady of Aparecida. The saint has a long history associated with a mysterious statue pulled from the Paraiba river in the 1700s, all the way to the references to the “Black Madonna”. Scapulars or double saint necklace, featuring one saint worn hanging down the back, and another the front often also depict Our Lady of Aparecida. Popular cultural uses of these scapulars are all over the country, especially for surfers who use them as protection. So in honor of the Met exhibit I wanted to look at a few examples of jewelry and accessories.
What is Catholicism if not Roman? The history of the Roman empire and it’s relationship to Christianity is a saga we cannot hope to summarize here, but we can look at the early roots in terms of jewelry if we look at Byzantium. The empire at the time was divided into two parts. Eastern and Western Rome. In about 330 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine I established New Rome or Constantinople and Christianity as its official religion. When Rome fell in 476 all that was left was eastern Rome or the Byzantine empire. This is a complex history but to summarize this empire survived for centuries after. This is a moment rich in iconography, jewelry, and symbolism until the 8th and part of the 9th century when emperors banned religions imagery. Around 1054 the religious split came where one was called the Roman Catholics and the others the Eastern Orthodox Catholics. The rest is a very long history to get to today’s Rome, Vatican, and it’s relationship to Italy. However; it does lead to my favorite part Byzantine examples of jewelry. Here are some housed in the Met.
The history of the cross, as a symbol for Christians, can be traced back at least to the 3rd Century, which continues today and has spread of course into pop cultural references and iconography. That is why jewelry from the rosary to the cross can have so much power for the believer. The rosary is really a tool for prayer, with days assigned to types of prayer and each element or bead meaning different things. The bead above the cross is for the “Our Father” prayer, then you have the 3 Hail Marys, Glory Be and on. When those messages are converted a vast system of counter cultural references can be created. Symbols, gender, sexuality, and religion, are all tightly bound in the overall cultural belief system. Jewelry and accessories are one area where that iconography has been unwrapped and rewrapped in pop culture in very interesting ways.
Pop Culture and the Fashion Accessory:
Catholicism’s relationship to popular culture is complex to define. Popular culture is a bit difficult itself to pin down! In many ways, it is a set of beliefs and objects endowed with symbols that have been created or reiterated by the newest generation. It becomes dominant at any certain period and proliferates in that setting. Fashion’s use of Catholic symbols was in some cases, a counter cultural response or rebellion that became pop culture history. Other times, it is a romanticism or fetishism of Catholicism that emerges. To celebrate the sure to be enthralling Met exhibit, I’m including below a round up of the best Catholic infused fashion accessories and jewelry for sale at the moment. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to see Madonna tonight!
Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
The Meaning of Icons
by Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky
The Theology of the Icon
(2 volume set)
Carlos Miele. Cosac & Naify.