When Lana Del Rey dressed in a pierced heart and blue-winged headdress, she invoked Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. (On a website called Beauty So Ancient, a number of devotional objects of the Lady are advertised under the headline, “A Devotion You Can’t Afford to Ignore.”) The seven sorrows refer to the tragedies of the Virgin Mary, running from the prophecy of Simeon to the piercing of Christ’s side to his burial. It would be very unusual indeed to see the sorrowing Lady with a smile on her face as broad as Lana Del Rey’s.
When Katy Perry showed up in an enormous set of angel wings, she looked like a picture you could buy as “Catholic Print Picture Large GUARDIAN ANGEL w/ boy and girl 8×10” from bonanza.com. Other celebrities took a different approach to the prompt of “Catholicism,” and associated the concept with Italian art ipso facto. This category included Amanda Seyfried, who dressed not as a Catholic but as a woman from a Botticelli allegory of spring. Botticelli himself is of course strongly associated with the kind of art you can buy on religious tote bags, since he painted so many cherubs.
But the late fifteenth-century painting Primavera is a scene of classical mythology. So what is the connection Seyfried is drawing here? As with the devotional object tradition of Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry, Seyfried is drawing upon a concept of the Catholic that is in fact an art historical idea. Remembering the Council of Trent’s disdain for the “lascivious,” the disorganized, and the “indecorous,” we can see how the very notion of Southern European and erotic art forms took on a Catholicism, if you will, that in fact has little to do with its religious underpinnings. Botticelli was painting, after all, before the very split that defined “Catholicism” as something other than Christianity itself.
Perhaps the strangest celebrity engagement with the Gala’s theme came in the form of haloes. Aside from Janelle Monae’s extremely orthodox halo, which she could have prized straight off a Byzantine icon, the fashion move of the night was to put a radiant circle on one’s head. A halo—otherwise known as an aureole, a nimbus, or a gloriole—can be seen in a variety of religious art: Ra has a solar disco over his head; Buddha often a halo; the Roman emperors were crowned in rays of light. But in Christian art, the halo has taken a few distinct forms. In medieval art, the halo went flat against the background. But as Renaissance interest in perspective grew, the halo became an aura tilted over the holy person’s head.
A halo of rays with no circle was often used in medieval art to signify a beatified holy person who was not yet canonized. The ray-beam style eventually became acceptable on any holy individual, but is most often seen in Catholic art on the Virgin Mary—sometimes in the form of a circle of stars, a symbol that later transferred to the European Union—because of her role as the Woman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. The radiant, spiky halo of late Catholic object-art was seen last night over the heads of Lily Collins, SZA, Rita Ora, and Solange. Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely wore a simple round nimbus, as seen in Da Vinci’s Madonna Benois, which looked very nice.