How the Met Got Into the Vatican’s Vestments

Posted May 4, 2018 4:46 p.m. EDT

VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Georg Gänswein said yes to the dress.

The dashing former right-hand man to Benedict XVI, the fashion-plate pope, he is now prefect of the papal household under the more austere Pope Francis. Last May, Gänswein sat in his stately Apostolic Palace office as Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showed him a look book of couture masterpieces that Bolton felt matched with certain Vatican treasures.

Gänswein, in a soutane with purple sash, indifferently flipped pages of designer frocks until he lingered on a luxurious Madame Grès dress inspired by a Franciscan habit.

“They all love that,” Bolton said of the dress.

The archbishop gradually became enthusiastic as he and Bolton discussed the role of beauty in the church and Bolton explained his vision for the project that would explore the way the Roman Catholic Church had served as an inspiration to designers through the centuries. Then things really started rolling.

Bolton received authorization from senior Vatican officials to borrow the vestments. He was also granted full access to the Sistine Chapel Sacristy and became so close with its custodian priests in his 10 trips to Rome that they entrusted him with the hidden chamber’s keys and opened secret doors, behind which elderly nuns ironed the pope’s white vestments.

The show that would ultimately become “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” the biggest exhibition the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum has ever held, opening Thursday, was on the verge of becoming a reality.

It was the culmination of years of negotiations, two stalled visits to Rome, and walking the tightrope between Anna Wintour, the powerful editor of Vogue and a Met trustee, and the many powers in the Vatican.

Navigating the Vatican Maze

While the Vatican may be enthusiastic about “Heavenly Bodies” now, it took years for it to warm to an exhibit that Bolton first envisioned as including many religious traditions. Dealing with one church proved to be enough.

In June 2016, a colleague of Bolton’s in the Met’s European paintings department put him in touch with Arnold Nesselrath, a Vatican museum curator. Nesselrath arranged for Bolton to visit the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, a chamber of rooms within rooms containing a hive of numbered wooden doors and drawers bearing embossed strips and containing shawls and stoles, papal tiaras, papal rings and pectoral crosses.

Bolton tried to explain the concept of the exhibition to the keeper of the sacristy, a quiet Slovakian priest named Pavel Benedik.

“He wasn’t quite sure what the request was,” Bolton said of Benedik. “He was confused.” To expedite the process, Nesselrath suggested that on his next visit, Bolton meet with Barbara Jatta, now the director of the Vatican museum. For that trip, Bolton brought along Wintour. Jatta arranged several tours for them, including another trip to the sacristy, where this time Benedik’s assistant, Antonio, showed them around.

Jatta asked how many items the Met intended to borrow, and Bolton responded, about eight. Wintour said he needed to ask for at least twice that, prompting a skeptical laugh from Jatta. (The Met eventually got more than 40.) Jatta then informed the curator that the lending of the pieces was, anyway, out of her hands.

“These vestments don’t belong to the Vatican museum,” she said, according to Bolton. “They belong to the Sistine Chapel Sacristy.”

Wintour was less than pleased.

“She turned around to me and said, ‘This isn’t your finest moment, Andrew,'” Bolton recalled.

So he came back. Again and again.

On one of those visits, a priest gave Bolton and Hamish Bowles, a writer for Vogue, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican. The priest opened the door to a room where eight nuns, including a shrunken nonagenarian on a step, ironed the pope’s white vestments.

Bolton learned that the popes all had their own styles and that “there is personality behind” all of the separate tiaras and vestments. He himself often gravitated toward the ornate vestments of Pope Pius IX.

“He was quite the dandy,” Bolton said.

And Benedik warmed to him. Nevertheless, the priest lacked the power to authorize a loan and suggested that Bolton talk to Gänswein. “He’s like a movie star; it’s like meeting George Clooney," Bolton said of the archbishop, often called Gorgeous George. Gänswein, apparently on board, told Bolton to send an official request to Monsignor Guido Marini, the papal master of liturgical celebrations and the keeper of the sacristy.

The Met’s head of exhibitions, Quincy Houghton, did just that, and Marini’s office asked for approval — a “nihil obstat” in Vatican parlance — from the first section of the Secretariat of State, which is responsible for general church affairs.

“This is not a procedure where the pope gets involved, or has to give his OK,” the Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.

When permission was granted, Bolton returned for many more trips and, with Benedik, refined the list of objects to borrow, including a papal tiara with 19,000 precious stones, including 18,000 diamonds. (It will fly to New York with its own bodyguard.) During one 10-day stretch of 12-hour days inside the sacristy with Katarina Jedd, who scanned the objects for the catalog, the custodians entrusted Bolton with the keys to the sacristy.

After the Loans, More Risks

With the loans secured, Bolton asked David Tracy, a highly regarded Catholic writer — Bolton called him “the J.D. Salinger of the theological world” — to contribute an essay to the catalog to lend it intellectual heft.

It took a year before he agreed. Then Bolton tackled the New York side of the equation, trying to ensure he wasn’t accidentally touching any third rails.

He asked Emily Rafferty, a former president of the Met with connections to New York’s Catholic community, for a hand. She suggested Bolton work with James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America Magazine, who was appointed last year by Pope Francis as a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.

Martin said that one day, after embarrassingly spilling hummus on his pants earlier, he went to a Met conference room to review the storyboards the curators had pinned to the walls with thumbtacks. He was impressed by what he described as the “real attention to Catholic sensibilities” behind the pairings.

Asked by Bolton and colleagues if he thought the presentation would prompt any blowback, Martin said there may be some complaints about “celebrity culture being grafted onto the church,” but he thought it would be minor. “They will see something beautiful, and that’s part of the Catholic imagination,” he said.

It was also Martin who, reviewing the gift catalog, noticed that one necklace was described as adorned with a “winged man,” and told the Met, “It’s OK to say ‘angel.'”

He also suggested asking Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the de facto minister of culture for the Vatican and an erudite former prefect of the Biblioteca-Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, to contribute to the exhibit catalog. Ravasi had gotten to know many of the great designers during his time in the fashion capital, including Miuccia Prada, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and Giorgio Armani.

Crossing the Fashion Gap

In February, the Met delegation, including Bolton and Wintour, traveled to Rome to officially announce the exhibit alongside Ravasi, who not only participated in the news conference, but also rubbed shoulders with Donatella Versace. She told him she thought his crimson vestments were beautiful.

He said he replied, “The purple is even better.” Still, in a church where Pope Francis’s dressing down has made dressing up out of style, questions remain about how a lush exhibit and its related gala, organized by Wintour, squares with the pope’s desire for a less ostentatious, poorer church.

“Francis with his simple clothes expresses another concept. It’s not combative with the others,” said Ravasi, who said he considered fashion a critical cultural language and the lent vestments expressions of the church’s power, beauty and splendor through the centuries.

The cardinal said fashion had biblical origins (“It was God who dressed us. God was the tailor in Genesis.”) and he saw a common thread between the dress code for a gala and the otherworldliness of ecclesiastical vestments. Both of them signified, he said, a distinction from the mundane and quotidian.

As for those who consider the accessorizing of papal vestments with modern fashion a blasphemous exploitation, Ravasi said it at least showed that those Christian symbols still touched a nerve.

“They aren’t using the symbols of the Roman Empire,” he said with a chuckle.