The world’s largest Christian denomination might seem far removed from the secular realm of the fashion industry, but a major exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art argues that the two spheres do converge — sometimes in unexpected ways.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination reveals how Catholic imagery has shaped innovative fashion designs during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Curator Andrew Bolton says the influence hasn’t always been one-sided.

Bolton, delivering remarks at the exhibition’s opening and in a videotaped interview, explains why the museum is highlighting an intertwining of faith and fashion.

Dress “is central to any discussion about religion: It affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, asserts religious differences,” he said. “And while some might regard fashion as a frivolous pursuit far removed from the sanctity of religion, most of the vestments worn by the secular clergy and religious orders of the Catholic Church have their origins in secular dress.”

Sacred iconography, reinterpreted

Two evening dresses (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Crystal beadwork on a Gianni Versace gown, left, mimics a Byzantine processional cross, while an evening dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, right, recreates a 15th-century painting of a classic biblical theme: the Garden of Eden. (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Luxurious fabrics vs. ornate details

Two evening dresses (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Eveningwear by Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren for Viktor & Rolf, left, evokes medieval statues of the Virgin Mary. Right, a dress by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for Dolce & Gabbana is reminiscent of the Byzantine mosaics in Italy’s Ravenna Cathedral. (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Beatific visions

An evening ensemble resembling papal vestments beside elaborate statuary vestments (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
An evening ensemble by John Galliano for House of Dior, left, is based on papal vestments. A similarly regal statuary vestment, right, for the Virgin of El Rocío figure at the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Compassion, was created by French designer Yves Saint Laurent. (Digital composite scan © Katerina Jebb/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Heavenly Bodies is the largest show ever staged by The Met’s Costume Institute, featuring more than 40 items lent by the Vatican, plus couture and ready-to-wear creations inspired by religious garb, rituals or sacred art linked to Catholicism. (The current pontiff, Pope Francis, dresses more simply than his predecessors.)

The exhibition is spread across multiple galleries within The Met’s Fifth Avenue location and also occupies part of The Cloisters (the museum’s uptown branch, built from elements of French monasteries). Museum visitors, said Bolton, will encounter a series of “dialogues” between fashion and religious art as they move from one area to the next.

Among the Vatican treasures is a three-tiered tiara studded with 19,000 gems (diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds), given by Queen Isabella II of Spain to Pope Pius IX in 1854. And some of the elaborate papal vestments, all handmade, took 16 years to produce.

Mannequin in elaborate ensemble in museum (© Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)
A lavish wedding ensemble by Christian Lacroix mirrors religious art depicting Mary, Queen of Heaven. (© Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the runway fashions — mostly by designers from Catholic backgrounds — are paired with Catholic-themed medieval artworks from The Met’s collections, offering historical context for each ensemble.

Row of mannequins dressed in religious-themed outfits (© Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)
Outfits evoking nuns’ habits, monastic orders and the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are displayed at The Cloisters. (© Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Otherworldly apparel

Not surprisingly, the dramatic silhouettes of Catholic religious clothing have found their way into fashion designers’ creations.

Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, a devout Catholic, devised a wedding dress that recalls the cone-shaped gowns seen on statues of the Virgin Mary. Balenciaga’s dress is displayed at The Cloisters, along with a wedding gown by Karl Lagerfeld that resembles an altar server’s robe, and other ensembles with ecclesiastical overtones.

Red gown on mannequin among others in a large museum gallery (Agaton Strom/The New York Times)
A red silk taffeta dress by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino echoes the red vestments of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. (© Agaton Strom/The New York Times)

Although some designers might evoke religious imagery to be provocative, “the majority … engage with it from nostalgia” and because of its transcendent beauty, said Bolton.

Describing Heavenly Bodies as “a pilgrimage,” he added: “I hope that one of the takeaways from the exhibition is that Catholicism has a belief system that inspires some of the most extraordinary works of art.”