What to Wear? Perfumes for the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” Show

Left: Reliquary cross, Italian, 14th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpoint Morgan, 1917 (17.190.497) Right: Gilet, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Fall 2008–09, digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

This week, the exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As an art historian and a fashion fan (not to mention, a Catholic!) I can’t help but anticipate this event. The preview images are sumptuous, to say the least.

And, as usual, I can’t help making a few perfume connections. Here’s a list of fragrances that would work well as olfactory companions for a Catholic-themed outing to “Heavenly Bodies.” I’ve paired some of them with garments in the show and my own selection of other works from Met’s vast collections.

Cacharel Eden

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Let’s conjure up our time in Eden with this perfume from Cacharel. It’s described by Cacharel as “a lush garden. . .a sensory paradise.” Too bad about that bottle, but the box makes up for it!

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino. Evening dress, spring/summer 2014 haute couture. Courtesy of Valentino S.p.A. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

And here’s a gown from “Heavenly Bodies” to match, complete with Adam and Eve and their temptation at the Tree of Knowledge. That image on the skirt was appropriated from a painting by Luca Cranach the Elder.

Lanvin My Sin (Mon Péché)


Glamour with a dash of Catholic guilt? My Sin was the most elegant way to acknowledge our fall from grace. . .until it was discontinued in the late 1980s. (It can still be found online, with a little luck and patience.)

Georges de la Tour, The Penitent Magdalen, ca. 1640. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.517

I’d wear a dab of Sin for a detour past one of my longtime favorites at the Met, this painting of Mary Magdalen.

Comme des Garçons Incense Series 3: Avignon


I can’t improve on Luckyscent‘s description of this one. “Avignon evokes the medieval city in the south of France which surpassed Rome as the Catholic Church’s power center in the 14th century. It’s the scent of Gothic cathedrals and papal palaces, of tapestries imbued with centuries of incense. Of cold marble steps, holy relics and dark confessions.”

John Galliano for House of Dior. Evening ensemble, autumn/winter 2000–2001 haute couture. Courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

You could wear CdG Avignon with an appropriately papal-inspired ensemble, complete with mitre, from the glory days of Galliano at Dior.

evans bourges.jpg
Frederick H. Evans, 
Height and Light in Bourges Cathedral, 1901. Photogravure published in Camera Work, October 1903. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

And here’s an interior view of Bourges Cathedral, photographed by Frederick W. Evans in 1901, to set the mood further. Cold marble, iron gates, wood pews…and the aroma of incense.

Demeter Holy Water


Here’s an affordable pick from the ever-expanding Demeter line. The Demeter website suggests, “To capture this scent, imagine an old European church, in a small town off the beaten track. This is the scent of the blessed water you might find there in an old stone container.”

Follower of Guglielmus, Holy Water Font, ca. 1160–65. Carrara marble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection 64.96

An “old stone container.” You mean…a font or a stoup?! That’s the specific name for the bowl-like vessels that contain holy water. They’re often positioned just inside the entrance to a church. (A larger version is used in the sacrament of Baptism, when a newcomer to the Catholic faith—often an infant—is anointed with holy water.)

Here’s a nice example, above, from the Met’s collections.

o.26578.jpgLe Couvent des Minimes Eau du Cloître

According to the Le Couvent de Minimes website: “Below the village of Mane, in the south of France, a convent was built in the 17th century in a place surrounded by curative herbs and flowers. The Convent’s first inhabitants, the Minim Brothers, gave their name to the place.”

This “fresh and floral botanical cologne” is inspired by the cloister gardens cultivated and tended by the Minim order at that monastery. Matching body products are also available!

Madame Grès (Alix Barton). Evening dress, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., 1988 (2009.300.1373). Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

You might not necessarily think of monks and friars as style influencers. However, you’d be wrong. Case in point: this robe-like evening dress by Madame Grès.

Cloister architecture from the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa,  France, ca. 1130–40, now at The Cloisters in Manhattan, 25.120.398–.954 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A fragrance inspired by the medieval clergy and their quiet retreats would be especially fitting for a visit to The Cloisters, where half of “Heavenly Bodies” is installed.

Acqua di Santa Maria Novella Profumo


For even more authenticity, nothing beats Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a pharmacy founded by the Dominican order in Florence in 1612. Even before the pharmacy opened, Santa Maria Novella’s monks had spent centuries raising herbs and flowers to be used in medicines and toiletries.

Bust profile portrait of Catherine de’ Medici, from Portraits of Some Princes and Illustrious People, published in Venice, 1568. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.136.288

According to the SMN website, Acqua di Santa Maria Novella was created by Santa Maria Novella’s gifted herbalists for the Florentine noblewoman (and eventual Queen of France) Caterina de’ Medici in 1533.”

The House of Medici, monks, Renaissance Florence…what more could you ask for?

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab Ave Maria Gratia Plena


This perfume oil is a “pale, delicate, truly angelic blend” with notes of lemon, sandalwood, musk, sage, lily, jasmine and orris. It’s inspired by Oscar Wilde’s poem evoking the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary.

Botticelli, The Annunciation, ca. 1485-92. Tempera and gold on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.1.74

The Annunciation is one of the “joyful mysteries” of the Rosary and one of the key events in the Christian narrative. It was also a favorite subject for centuries of Catholic art in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and beyond. Here’s just one example, from the Met’s Lehman Collection.

The angel holds a lily flower, a symbolic representation of Mary’s purity.

Thierry Mugler Angel



Last but not least. Speaking of angels, how could I not include Angel? It’s one of the best-selling (and most creative) fragrances of the past quarter-century. It evokes a celestial being who loves candy, a seraphim with a sense of fun.

Plaque with Censing Angels, ca. 1170–80. Champlevé enamel, copper gilt. Made in Limoges, France. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.634

These angels, with their blue enamel haloes and wings, are swinging incense burners, so you just know they smell as gorgeous as they look.

And here’s designer John Galliano again, giving some very fancy angel her wings…

John Galliano for House of Dior. Evening ensemble, autumn/winter 2005–6 haute couture. Courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

I’m hoping to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sometime before the end of the month to see this exhibition. What fragrance will I actually wear for the occasion? I’ll just have to ponder my options and make a decision. Pray for me.

All fashion images and art images via the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.



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