WORDS BY ALEXANDRIA DETERS
The Met Gala’s theme this year was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion And The Catholic Imagination, which at first glance seems to have no connection to queer culture, history, and art. But in actuality, Catholicism and queerness has been intimately entangled for centuries. Before designers were creating looks for celebrities to wear when meeting the Pope, the Pope and the Catholic Church were commissioning artists to create looks and art for them.
When we think of the decadence and ceremony of Catholicism: gold crosses, the rich blue of the Virgin Mary and candles immediately come to mind, we have in part to thank queer artists of the past and present. Starting from the very inception of art history with the first art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (b.1717-1768), who, while being openly homoerotic in his art writings, worked closely with the Catholic Church in his research. One of the most recognizable artists that worked with the church is Michelangelo, with his muscular, nude, semi-nude, and softly-erotic depictions of the human form, as seen in Creation of Adam, (c.1508-1512, fresco). This work is a perfect example of how a queer artist, who was commissioned by the Catholic Church, was still able to hint at his queerness and desires through his art, in such a coded and veiled way that Michelangelo’s queerness was debated for centuries.
“When exhibited in 2001 in Sante Fe, New Mexico Catholics in the area were appalled and the New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan called the work “sacrilegious” and demanded it be removed from the exhibition, Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology.”
Yet, while knowingly or unwittingly (you decide), the church commissioned queer artists to make work for them and their churches, most LGBTQAI and queer individuals did not and do not have a symbiotic relationship with the Catholic faith and church. In opposition to Catholic ideologies, the queer community has been revolting through activism and art. As a way of appropriating Catholic icons and imagery, the queer community has taken Saint Sebastian, and unofficially made him their saint and icon. Depicted in almost an erotic way, he became an object of desire for many young queer men.
St. Sebastian though has become more than just an icon to lust over and has become an object of protest. St. Sebastian historically has been the patron saint of the plague and protector of plague victims dating back to the Bubonic plague. That has evolved into him becoming the unofficial patron saint of HIV/AIDS victims during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. This is seen in works by queer artists such as the work of photography duo, Pierre et Gilles’ St. Sebastian, 1987, where the saint is depicted in a soft glow making him look almost feminine but at the same time sexually charged. While Pierre et Gilles are an example of queer artists reimagining Catholic icons with a queer and fashionable twist, others took a more unvarnished approach.
The drag performance, protest and charity organization, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dress up as Catholic nuns and use drag and religious imagery to call attention to sexual intolerance and satirize issues of gender and morality. The organization, ACT UP, known for creating the now iconic SILENCE=DEATH artwork took a more direct approach. In 1989, ACT UP helped organize a protest with over 4,000 people at New York City’s St. Patrick Cathedral, fulled by the Catholic Church’s stance on HIV/AIDS, queerness, and the words and actions of Cardinal O’Connor. In November of that year, he restated that distributing condoms or clean needles was an inappropriate way to combat the spread of the AIDS virus.
“This work is a perfect example of how a Queer artist who was commissioned by the Catholic Church was still able to hint at his queerness and desires through his art, in such a coded and veiled way that Michelangelo’s queerness was debated for centuries.”
A more recent example of Catholic artists illustrating their queerness through art is the digital art by Alma Lopez is, Our Lady, 1999. Lopez, a queer Chicana artist, who grew up Catholic, reimagined the Virgin of Guadalupe as a strong feminist Chicana looking directly at the viewer, wearing roses as a bikini and surrounded by Catholic and indigenous Chicana symbols. When exhibited in 2001 in Sante Fe, New Mexico Catholics in the area were appalled and the New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan called the work “sacrilegious” and demanded it be removed from the exhibition – Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology. Thankfully the Museum of International National Folk Art did not remove the work, but this controversy reminds us of how even if a queer artist is positively trying to reference their Catholic heritage, it can be seen as an attack on the church, leading to ill-feeling between the church and the queer community at large.
Whilst admiring the beauty of the Met Gala’s theme – Heavenly Bodies: Fashion And The Catholic Imagination and the coinciding exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – don’t only admire the artistry of the clothing made by the designers. Remember the complex history of queerness and Catholicism and the impact of their artistry and protests on this sometimes incoherent relationship between queer artists and the Catholic Church.