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An art history examination of Met Gala looks

May. 9, 2018
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We have witnessed the first Monday in May, and it was a religious experience.

Every year on the first Monday in May, The Costume Institute hosts a gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme for this year’s event was the name of The Costume Institute's spring 2018 exhibition: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

Regarded as the “Oscars of the fashion world,” the Met Gala is always a parade of sheer luxury and creativity. This year, all attendees stepped up their wardrobe game to honor the sacred theme. After all, the upcoming exhibition will display stunning pieces from Versace, House of Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Balenciaga, and even the Vatican.

Although I am a nonreligious person, I could never depreciate the effects of religion on art! It is impossible to exclude it while studying art history.

I’ve decided to examine the artistic and biblical references made in four of my favorite Met Gala looks featuring the Italian Renaissance, Ancient Greece, sixteenth-century armor, and Byzantium.

Emilia Clarke

  1. Detail from The Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (c. 1514)
  2. Mary as the Sorrowful Mother in Acireale, Sicily. (date unavailable) 
  3. Detail from Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn by Raphael (c. 1506)
  4. Marble Statue Group of the Three Graces (c. 100s)

One of my favorite looks of the night was worn by actress Emilia Clarke, best known for playing Daenerys on Game of Thrones. In an interview with Liza Koshy, Clarke explained that her Dolce & Gabbana gown was inspired by a statue of the Virgin Mary located in Sicily. Though I can’t be certain, the reference for the gorgeous, low-cut black lace gown may have been this one of Mary as the Sorrowful Mother from Acireale, Sicily. Her black mantle embroidered in an intricate golden filigree certainly is inspiring. 

Clarke’s gown also showcases several panels of cherubs. Although in Western art cherubs are commonly associated with the Greco-Roman god Cupid, in Christian theology, cherubs are thought to be the second-highest rank of angels. These cherubs appear to be unique to Clarke’s gown, but may have been inspired by cherubs painted by Raphael in his 1514 fresco, The Triumph of Galatea.

Not to be overlooked are Clarke’s earrings by Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda. (They can be better seen here.) While not specific to Catholic art, the earrings reference art and jewelry styles contemporary with the Italian Renaissance and Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea. The earrings resemble the large, deep red gems and the suspended pear-shaped pearl in the necklace painted by Raphael in Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn. On either side of each earring, posed as if to offer support to the structure, are two small figures resembling Greco-Roman marble statues. Although the ancient statues that served as the inspiration for these earrings would have been secular, such classical works were very influential on artists of the Italian Renaissance.


  1. Mail Shirt (c. 1400’s)
  2. Miniature painting of Joan of Arc (c. 1450-1500)
  3. Elements of a Light-Cavalry Armor (c. 1505-1510) 
  4. Engraving of Joan of Arc by Albert Lynch (1903)

Joan of Arc was a young teenager living in Domrémy, France during the Hundred Years’ War. This war was essentially a dispute between the French and the British over who would inherit the French throne. The story goes that when she was thirteen, Joan began experiencing visions from the saints, who told her she needed to drive the British out of France. Joan went on to travel with the French military, wear men’s armor, and advise military leaders in the war. She was captured by the English and executed at age nineteen in the year 1431.

Zendaya’s look was one of several tributes to Joan of Arc, but I believe it was by far the most stunning. Her custom Versace gown was made to resemble chainmail and armor, as Joan would have worn in battle. However, the slinky, beaded, metallic gown is much more sensual than the actual chainmail of the fifteenth century. Versace’s reimagined pauldrons, gorget, and tuille bear a slight resemblance to sixteenth-century armor in the possession of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, they bear an even closer resemblance to the iconic engraving of Joan of Arc created by Albert Lynch in 1903.

Just as remarkable as Zendaya’s armor-dress was her wig, another nod to Joan. Joan’s hair was black, and she wore it cropped, in the “pudding-basin” style that was popular for men of the time. This description is reflected in the portrait by Albert Lynch. However, a much earlier portrait of Joan depicts her hair as long and red. Zendaya’s ginger bob is a marvelous fusion of both of these portraits.

Stella Maxwell

  1. Byzantine Mosaic of Eleusa icon (c. 1200’s)
  2. Beaded Russian Icon of Our Lady of Kazan (modern)
  3. Beaded Russian Icon of Our Lady of Tenderness (modern)
  4. Statue of the Virgin of Sorrows in Cordoba, Spain. (date unavailable)

Stella Maxwell may be a Victoria's Secret Angel, but she decided to ditch her wings and don a dozen Madonnas for this year’s Met Gala.

Her Moschino gown is covered in references to the Virgin Mary hailing from several different cultures and eras. From what we can see of the front panel, Moschino clearly was heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodox depictions of the Madonna. By Maxwell’s left hip, we see a white beaded interpretation of the Virgin of Tenderness, referred to in Russian iconography as the Eleusa. She holds the young Christ to her cheek.

The pieces below her right hip and on the left side of her bodice have both been replicated from modern Russian beadwork. The gorgeous blue image of Our Lady of Tenderness is meant to resemble Mary learning that she will give birth to Christ.

The image on her bodice is Our Lady of Kazan. This is an especially revered icon in the Russian Orthodox Church, believed to have been brought to Russia by Constantinople in the thirteenth century. The bold floral design of her mantle make this particular Lady a wonderful addition to Moschino’s collage.

The Madonna at the bottom of the front panel of the gown strays from its many Russian influences. While I am unsure of its exact origin and significance, her crown, halo, and black and gold mantle resemble a statue of the Virgin of Sorrows located in Cordoba, Spain. To her right we can make out three swords, belonging to what surely is another Lady of Sorrows.

Lana Del Rey

  1. Painting of Our Lady of Sorrows (c. 1500’s)
  2. Painting of Saint Lucy by Francesco del Cossa (c. 1473-4)
  3. Statue of Our Lady of Sorrows (date unavailable)

Our Lady of Sorrows was represented in full by musician Lana Del Rey, wearing Gucci. Del Rey’s look is definitely in the running for the most eccentric of the night, complete with daggers, eyeballs, and feathers.

Depicted in the sixteenth century wearing blue and white, Our Lady of Sorrows endures seven daggers through her heart. These are symbolic of the “Seven Sorrows of Mary,” which include the crucifixion of Christ. The golden heart and daggers on the Gucci gown more closely resemble this stunning statue of Our Lady of Sorrows than the Renaissance painting.

Unfortunately, the significance behind Del Rey’s blue feather headdress remains a bit of a mystery. Her eyeball accessory, however, is not! This is in reference to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind. It is said that her eyes were removed before her death (either by herself or by her executors). For this reason, she is shown in many devotional images as holding eyes on a golden plate. Del Rey’s Met Gala look is specifically referencing a portrait of Saint Lucy painted by Francesco del Cossa after 1473 during the Italian Renaissance.