Bolton, “Heavenly Bodies”

849137060385d59a2407e4a27d172730There is a great scene in Fellini’s film, “La Dolce Vita,” in which Anita Ekberg’s character, dressed in a ridiculously inappropriate version of a priest’s cassock, climbs to the top of St. Peter’s dome to have a look. It’s all played for laughs. Ekberg’s character doesn’t mean to offend; she probably is trying to show respect, in fact. But she has no clue. And, Fellini’s point seems to be, that goes for everyone in post-war Europe. Everything and everyone is banal. People no longer have a sense of meaning, and therefore no longer understand when they are being insulting.

I thought of that scene when I stumbled earlier this month upon the Met’s exhibit on Catholic fashion, “Heavenly Bodies.” The less said about the show, the better, except that the word meretricious comes to mind. On the Saturday evening I saw it, the exhibit was jammed with visitors; I’m sure it has been a great success for the Met, financially. Apparently the Catholic Church cooperated on the exhibit, a fact which, as a non-Catholic, I have to say I find truly perplexing. In “La Dolce Vita,” the problem was that people didn’t know when they were being insulting. Today, apparently, people no longer know when they’re being insulted.

Anyway, for those who are interested, here is the Met’s catalogue for the exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, by the Met’s Andrew Bolton. The publisher is Yale University Press. Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A brilliant exploration of fashion’s complex engagement with the great art and artifacts of Catholic faith and practice.

Since antiquity, religious beliefs and practices have inspired many of the masterworks of art. These works of art have, in turn, fueled the imagination of fashion designers in the 20th and 21st centuries, yielding some of the most innovative creations in costume history. Connecting significant religious art and artifacts to their sartorial expressions, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination provides a critical analysis of fashion’s engagement with notions of the divine. Exploring fashion’s complex and often controversial relationship with Catholicism, Heavenly Bodies probes what dress reveals about the state of religion and spirituality within contemporary culture, and how it may manifest—or subvert—Catholic values and ideology. Art objects, such as devotional paintings and altarpieces from The Met’s collection, are presented alongside fashions from designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Callot Soeurs, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Madame Grès, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Jeanne Lanvin, Claire McCardell, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gianni Versace. The volume also presents a selection of ecclesiastical vestments and accessories from the Vatican collection, many of which have not been published before.


The Civil Religion of the First World War

Yesterday was the centenary anniversary of the beginning of World War I. On July 28, 1914,  one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the Austro-Hungarian empire made its first moves against Serbia. The Great War would end more than four years later.

This weekend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was hosting a very fine exhibit of American World War I posters. I was struck by the powerful imagery of civil religion in many of them. Here are two exhorting the purchase of war bonds that stood out to me as particularly representative of the genre:

World War I #2

World War I #1

And this afternoon, to remember the War, Mark and I visited the Flag Pole Green in Queens, New York, which has this lovely memorial to the men of Queens who died in the War:

World War I #3Just a few fragments of civil religion–that perennial social coagulant–in memory of the war to end war.

Chagall and the Meaning of a Crucifixion

Readers in NYC should make sure to visit a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” before it closes on February 2. Besides being a lovely show, the exhibition illustrates well a point my colleague Marc DeGirolami and others have made in the context of public religious displays: religious images can have multiple meanings.

The exhibition focuses on Chagall’s work in the 1940s, which he spent, in exile, in the United States. Several canvases suggest the tender love he had for his wife, Bella. These paintings are quite touching, particularly the dreamlike portrayals of their wedding day. Chagall seems to have been genuinely broken up when Bella died suddenly in 1944, though he did shortly find a new love. He was a famous artist, after all.

The most interesting paintings at the exhibition, however, and the ones that have drawn most attention, are the religious images. Chagall famously used Jewish themes throughout his work. Although he wasn’t observant, he drew inspiration from his upbringing in a Hasidic family in Russia. Here, however, Chagall uses Christian imagery. As the notes to the exhibition explain:

The most prevalent image Chagall used during World War II was of Jesus and the Crucifixion. For Chagall, the Crucifixion was a symbol for all the victims of persecution, a metaphor for the horrors of war, and an appeal to conscience that equated the martyrdom of Jesus with the suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. While other Jewish artists depicted the crucified Jesus, for Chagall it became a frequent theme.

Chagall didn’t paint the Crucifixion, in other words, to convey a Christian message about the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and no one seeing the paintings would draw that message. Rather, he used images of the Crucifixion for a political purpose. The Crucifixion “means” unjust suffering; we Jews in Europe are suffering now, at your hands, Chagall was saying. He was making an appeal for solidarity to the wider Christian world, especially artists in the wider Christian world.

The results disappointed him: “After two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent… I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.” But that doesn’t suggest the meaning of his paintings was incomprehensible. Whether or not they acted on Chagall’s appeal, most people who saw his paintings in the 1940s surely would have understood the message. So will most who see the paintings today.

First Things on the Destruction of Khachkars

First Things’s always worthwhile  On the Square blog has an interesting post on the destruction of Armenian carved stone crosses, or khachkars, in Turkey and Azerbaijan. The khachkar (literally, “cross-stone”) is a traditional Armenian art form; an analogue would be the familiar Celtic high cross. Crosses have a central place in Armenian Christian iconography, and khachkars, which can reach a few feet in height, dot the landscape in Armenia and in other places where Armenians have lived. Khachkars appear in cemeteries, in church courtyards, in homes, on roadsides; really,  anywhere.

Two years ago, UNESCO added the art of khachkar carving to the list of intangible cultural heritage meriting special protection in international law. As the First Things post makes clear, however, Turkey and Azerbaijan have undertaken to destroy khachkars that exist in those countries:

The last of the largest collections of khachkars, the Armenian Cemetery in Jugha in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, was purposefully annihilated in 2005 after several years of intermittent Read more

Church, State, and Law: Something from La Stanza della Segnatura

One last pictorial law and religion post from my recent trip to Rome.  If you enter the Stanza della Segnatura, one of the Raphael Rooms, in the Vatican Museums, your attention is likely to be absorbed by “The School of Athens.”  But on the wall just to the right of it, you would see two frescoed panels placed on opposite sides. 

The first is of the Emperor Justinian receiving the Corpus Juris Civilis (the “body of civil law”) from his great jurist, Tribonian.  Compiled in the early 6th century AD, the Corpus Juris Civilis represented the first great collection of civil law (and it influenced the development and content of many civil law systems), much of which was drawn from ancient Roman law.

The second panel is of Pope Gregory IX receiving the Decretals from the Dominican St. Raymond de Penafort in the early 13th century.  The Decretals were an early organization of the canon law of the Catholic Church which were intended by the Pope to be definitive.

The work of Harold Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (recommended and discussed on this site before), is an important place to learn about the relationship and mutual influence of the civil and canon law.  Berman’s emphasis is primarily on the latter’s influence on the development of the former, rather than on the revival of Roman law.

Protestant Aesthetics

And speaking of aesthetics, Zoë Pollock at The Dish has a very nice post on the 16-17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals (whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October), and also linking to a very knowledgeable description of the painter’s work by Morgan Meis.