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Introduction: Reconsidering Heavenly Bodies
In 2018 the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibit on Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  Set in the museum's medieval galleries, this blockbuster show juxtaposed Catholic-themed haute couture garments with the religious art of the European Middle Ages.  The star-studded Met Gala opening the exhibit was widely covered in the media, generating both popular and scholarly interest.  The latter produced a special session devoted to Heavenly Bodies at the 2019 meetings of the Medieval Academy of America.  Organized by Anne E. Lester of Johns Hopkins University and Sarah Spence, editor of the Academy's journal Speculum, the roundtable was moderated by Jacqueline Jung (Yale University) and featured commentary by five scholars.  I was honored to participate along with Maria J. Feliciano (Independent Scholar), Valerie Garver (Northern Illinois University), Jeffrey Hamburger (Harvard University), and Warren Woodfin (Queens College, CUNY).  While noting the beauty of the exhibited garments, all of us found the show's conceptual framework, catalog, and presentation disappointing and, on many issues, problematic.

Our presentations generated a lively discussion with the standing-room only audience and collectively we moved from criticism to positive steps forward.  Given the significant appeal of the show's haute couture ensembles, might the exhibit's weaknesses actually offer opportunities for teaching and research?  I felt confident that they did and proposed a fall 2019 Freshman and Sophomore Seminar on Fashion, the Middle Ages, and the Catholic Imagination: Reconsidering the Heavenly Bodies Exhibit.  After introductory readings on the history of fashion, material culture, object biographies, and the exhibit, each of the seminar's participants selected a garment as their research subject and set out to find information and explore issues that the exhibit and its catalog neglected.  What in the designer's background, or in the events or circumstances surrounding the collection, best explains the garment's engagement with Catholicism?  What meanings or statements are produced by the garment's materials, forms, or symbols?  Did the exhibit's juxtaposition of medieval artifacts with the garment create new meanings?  Periods of research alternated with presentations (using the "three-minute thesis" model), short papers, and feedback.  So exciting were the developing topics that participant Dorian Cole floated the idea of publishing a special issue of the Department of History's undergraduate journal, Clio's Scroll with its editor, Geraint Hughes, who enthusiastically embraced the project.  Not every student opted to revise their final essay for submission to the journal, but the five published in the special issue well represent the diversity of issues and approaches that animated the seminar.  Each of the registrants for MAA2020 will receive a copy, along with your conference "swag," whenever we can gather together to post them off to you.

Two of the journal contributors, Dorian Cole and Emily Su, prepared poster presentations for the Medieval Academy meetings based on their Heavenly Bodies research.  When the conference had to be cancelled, they prepared these videos to contribute to our virtual conference.

I'm especially grateful to Dorian and Emily for making these videos, but I also want to thank the other wonderful participants in the seminar: Patricia Alvarado, Tate Archibald, Zoe Carwin, Anna Clary, Ava Dobbs, Cora Downey, Sofia Howard, Parker James, Emma Kim, Ebbani Ray Lenka, Amanda Liu, Ying Long, Ronit Sholkoff, Natalie Sun, Jaywon Yi, and Xiaolin Joyce Yue.  Their lively intelligence and generosity of spirit created a model research community.  Thanks too to Elizabeth A. R. Brown and Valerie Garver for providing some of their unpublished work on the exhibit for use in the course.  The Freshman and Sophomore Seminar program and its Director Alix Schwartz made all this possible, funding not only the catalogs that served as the course "textbook" but also the publication of this special issue, the latter supported as well by grants from the UC Berkeley Department of History and the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC).

Maureen C. Miller
Copyright ©2020 The Medieval Academy of America
Opinions expressed by members in print, video, or online represent their personal views, not necessarily those of the Medieval Academy of America.

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