The Vatican’s culture minister joined designer Donatella Versace and Vogue’s Anna Wintour on Monday to offer a sneak preview of gorgeous Vatican liturgical vestments, jewelled mitres and historic papal tiaras that will star in a spring exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The event, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, opens on May 10 and represents the most extensive exhibition of the museum’s Costume Institute, officials said.

It also represents the first time some of the Vatican’s most precious treasures from the Sistine Chapel sacristy are being exhibited outside the Vatican.

Along with the papal treasures, the Met show includes garments for more ordinary mortals by designers spanning Azzedine Alia to Vivienne Westwood, all set against the backdrop of the Met’s collection of medieval and religious artwork.

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“Some might consider fashion to be an unfitting or unseemly medium by which to engage with ideas about the sacred or the divine,” curator Andrew Bolton told a crowd of Roman fashionistas and journalists.

“But dress is central to any discussion about religion. It affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, it asserts religious differences.”

The exhibition, featuring about 40 Vatican vestments and accessories spanning 15 papacies, will be spread among various Met galleries as well as the Cloisters branch in upper Manhattan in what organisers called a planned “pilgrimage” blending fashion, faith and art.

With Ennio Morricone’s film soundtrack for The Mission playing in the background, visitors on Monday were able to glimpse a small selection of the soon-to-be-shipped Vatican vestments: the white silk cape embroidered with gold thread that once belonged to Pope Benedict XV, and the emerald, sapphire and diamond-studded mitre, or pointed bishops’ hat, of Pope Leo XIII.

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They were put on display at the Palazzo Colonna, a former papal residence in central Rome, which is a fine example of the architecture of Roman Baroque period.

Wearing a cardinal-appropriate red and black velvet tunic dress, Wintour, for whom Costume Institute’s space was renamed, said the exhibition would show the influence of the papacy over millennia.

“Part of the power of the church has been how they look, and how they dress,” Wintour said. “They have this extraordinary presence.”

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Wearing his red-trimmed clerical garb and red zucchetto, or hat, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, told the crowd at Palazzo Colonna that clothing oneself was both a material necessity and a deeply symbolic act that was even recorded in the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

“God himself was concerned with dressing his creatures,” Ravasi said.

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