The Pontifical Council for Culture chose to collaborate with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York because of the Met’s significance to culture and potential global outreach, but officials were unaware of the widely criticized gala that took place on Monday night. 

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council, had been wanting for some time for the dicastery to focus on the relationship between fashion, art and faith, and so agreed to collaborate with the exhibition which opens May 10 and runs until October 8.

“We wanted to be involved and those behind it had good intentions,” a Vatican official told the Register. “As the Met is one of the most significant cultural institutions in the world, and our remit is to engage the world, we see it as important.”

But the Vatican was unaware of the Met Gala, and that the evening event would be used by some celebrities to dress up in a way deemed by many to be a sacrilegious mockery of the Church. 

The Gala “crossed a line and was openly, brazenly disrespectful,” wrote Piers Morgan, a Catholic talk show host, of the star-studded event which included pop singer Rihanna dressed up as a provocative, sequinned pope and actress Jennifer Lopez wearing a jewel-encrusted multi-coloured cross. “By doing so, [the Met] confirmed itself as an organisation of rank double standards, because everyone knows they'd have never dared do it to Islam or Judaism.”

The Met Gala is the annual curtain-raising event for its Summer exhibit, this year called Heavenly Bodies — Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. The display will feature “fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.”

The Vatican has loaned 40 priceless items which serve as the “cornerstone” of the display, including “papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican.” 

The Pontifical Council’s involvement dates back to the latter half of last year. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, a fashion magazine, says she had the idea but struggled to attract the Vatican’s interest, sending many emails but never receiving a response.

“I’m stubborn, everyone knows that,” she told La Repubblica May 8, and so wrote handwritten letters and turned up in person. The exhibition curator, Andrew Bolton, a Catholic himself, also made several attempts, Wintour said, eventually obtaining permission from the Vatican to borrow the exhibits.

The Jesuit magazine America played a role in persuading the Vatican to take part, arranging meetings between Archbishop Paul Tighe, Secretary at the Pontifical Council for Culture, and people in charge at the Met when Archbishop Tighe happened to be visiting New York last October. 

Local Church Backing

But work towards putting on the exhibition was already underway: one of the Council’s consulters, Italian fashion designer Lavinia Biagiotti, had already made inroads into organizing it with Cardinal Ravasi.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, had also already given it his backing. The support and engagement of the local Church was said to have been crucial in giving the Pontifical Council confidence to go forward with its collaboration.

Jesuit Father James Martin, America’s editor-at-large and consulter to the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, is also understood to have played a role and, along with Cardinal Dolan, attended Monday’s event.

But Council officials saw the Gala as a “stand-alone event” and took little notice of it — indeed most knew nothing about it until this year. For them, the exhibition was the main focus, and they noted that organizations such as the Sheen Cultural Center also had events connected with the exhibition planned. The Council also insists it has received no financial rewards for loaning the exhibits, although the Met may have paid for some restoration costs.

But this was not the limit of Vatican involvement: the Sistine Chapel Choir, made up mainly of boys aged 9-13, performed at the Gala for the assorted, provocatively dressed celebrities at the request of the organizers: Wintour and the Met. 

“We were contacted by them after the tour we did last year in the U.S.,” said Michelangelo Nardella, the Sistine Chapel Choir’s administrator. “The official invitation came through Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who was present at the Gala and who probably helped to take care of other aspects of the event.”

Nardella said he believes the exhibition is “exclusively” linked to the Catholic world and in particular the Vatican and the papal sacristy. “In this way, our presence fit well with the exhibition and that’s what the organizers strongly wanted,” Nardella told the Register, adding that he believed it would be “difficult for this to happen again in the future.”

He said the Choir would continue doing what it always has: performing concerts in cathedrals, or theatres, and bringing the “message of peace, ecumenism and evangelization.” After last year’s historic tour to the U.S., the Sistine Chapel Choir will be returning to American shores for a series of concerts in July (see tour dates here).

But concerning the Gala, the Vatican generally played down its significance as the work of a few provocateurs. “For those who wish to make publicity stunts, to draw the most attention, I always say it’s better to ignore them,” said one inside source, noting that these days the faith and art do not have the easy relationship they once had. “Let’s just say I’m happy the Gala is over.”