The AI-generated image of the pope in a fake puffer jacket generated more headlines than his real pulmonary infection which required hospitalisation this week. In the most circulated image, the pope was swathed in a gigantic (and, in this writer’s humble opinion, ugly) shiny and blindingly white puffer jacket and a bling pectoral cross.
The internet loved it – mostly. About 80% of the reaction was similar to a wryly humorous Guardian article by Joel Golby. He believed the image was real because Pope Francis is “always doing tweets and saying something very slightly liberal. He’s cool! So I thought wearing a really big coat and looking like a Metal Gear Solid 2 boss battle might have been part of his ongoing cool guy shtick. Lord, forgive me”.
About 15% of the reaction was outrage at yet another ostentatious display of wealth by the Vatican. The Washington Post, which knows these things even though the coat does not exist in the real world, estimates it would cost in the region of a similar Balenciaga coat for women costing $3,550 or a Rick Owen coat costing $3,075.
‘I thought wearing a really big coat and looking like a Metal Gear Solid 2 boss battle might have been part of the pope’s ongoing cool guy shtick. Lord, forgive me’
The remaining 5% took one look, immediately recognised that the image was fake and wondered how it was generated. Why? This is the pope who urges Christians to live a lifestyle in solidarity with the poor. In no universe would he wear a designer puffer jacket.
A chatbot that can advise teenagers how to hide pot and lose their virginity? Nothing creepy about that at all
He has even shunned the elaborate vestments and other papal clothing worn by Benedict (and every other Pope, including the beloved John XXIII, up until John Paul II).
Incidentally, that divergence in papal style generated an epic burn. Filippo Sorcinelli is a self-styled artist, parfumier and founder of Laboratorio Atelier Vesti Sacre, which designs and makes sacred vestments, including for both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict.
Sorcinelli mused that for the scholarly Benedict, expressing the beauty of God in liturgical garments was the highest priority, whereas Pope Francis’ preference for simplicity is more modest but ‘also puts the focus more on [Francis] himself’. Ouch.
Sorcinelli, whose personal style is somewhere between Rasputin and El Greco if both favoured tattoos, might be jaundiced about Pope Francis because Sorcinelli’s ‘clothes laboratory’ (ecclesiastical tailor’s shop to plebs) is less busy under Francis than Benedict.
The puffer jacket episode is generating reams of commentary about how we will soon not be able to trust the evidence of our eyes
Back to the puffer jacket, which Buzzfeed claims was created by Pablo Xavier, a Chicago construction worker, using the AI generation tool, Midjourney, when he was high on magic mushrooms.
One eerie detail is that the narrower waist of the ridiculous white jacket evokes the fascia, a sash worn by popes and other clergy. There is another AI image of the pope in an orange puffer jacket with an actual fascia.
AI tools use hundreds or even thousands of images to meet user requests, so if it incorporated a nod to a fascia, in one way it is not surprising, but just very creepy that an AI would have this human-like level of awareness.
The puffer jacket episode is generating reams of commentary about how we will soon not be able to trust the evidence of our eyes. That moment arrived a long, long time ago. Someone using Photoshop could have generated the image in about half an hour, complete with better papal hands that would not give away so easily that the image was faked.
The difference is that Midjourney did it in a fraction of the time and the only human expertise required was to input some text prompts. Apparently, Pablo Xavier (he declines to give his surname for fear of backlash) used prompts during his drug-induced haze like “The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris.” (Moncler is an Italian fashion house that has a down-filled puffer gown on sale for €16,000.) And that is all it took.
The fact that so many people believed the image was real points to another concern other than the obvious one about disinformation.
Sorcinelli’s personal style is somewhere between Rasputin and El Greco if both of them favoured tattoos
Francis is earnestly trying to provide a moral compass, an antidote to the individualism and consumerism that is posing an undeniable threat to our shared, fragile planet. The puffer jacket represents ostentatious posturing similar to “what the wealthiest 26-year-olds are currently wearing around SoHo [New York]” as the Washington Post put it.
The image generated amused admiration for the Pope’s drip. (God be with the days when a drip was a bore – for the past few years, it has meant swag and style.)
Francis has an unparalleled platform as one of the most recognisable figures in the world. If all that visibility has achieved for many people is to make him a cool pope who might conceivably wear a fashion item worth thousands of dollars, that is a tragedy.
Even Pablo Xavier, the ‘shroom-ingesting construction worker, recognises that. He now thinks images like his should be regulated. A bit late for such regrets, Pablo. Let’s hope it is not also too late for Pope Francis’s attempts to provide an antidote to ostentatious wastefulness. If it is, we are not only in trouble regarding disinformation, but also helpless in the face of an all-conquering value system that is slowly strangling creation itself.