Should We Sell the Art in the Vatican and Give the Money to the Poor?

by David Clayton on April 9, 2013

luca-giordano-le-bon-samaritain_i-G-50-5080-LYZ2G00ZIs this the Franciscan message? On the final Monday of Lent, Mass at Thomas More College was celebrated by one of the monks from St Benedict’s Abbey in Still River. It is always a pleasure to have them here because they celebrate Mass and chant the Latin so beautifully. Beyond this, their homilies are always interesting and stimulating.

The gospel passage on this occasion was about Martha and Mary: Martha tended to the guests and Mary washed Jesus feet with expensive nard, a fragrant ointment. Unusually, (in my experience at any rate), the homily spoke not so much to the contrast between Martha and Mary, but between Mary and Judas. It was the latter who suggested that the money spent on nard would have been better given to the poor. Here was a lesson about allocation of resources.  Mary made the right choice, we were told, in choosing Christ even before giving to the poor. Then an even more interesting point was made. There is an equivalent choice facing us today every time we have to decide about having beautiful churches and art, intricate vestments, ornate jewel-studded chalices and so on. Is it right to direct money to these things when there is poverty? The answer is yes when these things, through the liturgy, elevate the souls of the faithful to Christ and this is greater than giving to the poor.

However, in order to understand how this can be so, some additional points must be made. First is that there is a point beyond which spending money on ornamentation of churches would constitute extravagance. But provided that point has not been reached then spending money on that nobler end, it is not asking the poor to make a sacrifice either. The first point is that all of us, rich or poor, can go to church and need our souls saving, so the poor benefit from this spiritually as much as the rich do. Second, is that when we see the greater picture, the poor will benefit materially as well. It will inspire the rich to give to the poor directly. Further to that it will allow for the generation of greater wealth for the benefit of the poor. This is the principle of superabundance at work.

Johannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_ProjectIt occurred to me as I pondered on this afterwards that it is this last point that escapes so many people. Life is not a zero-sum game. Love is always fruitful – and when it is it invokes the principle of superabundance which means that something is created out of nothing.  The miracle of the loaves and fishes applies to wealth as well when we place Christ first. So inspiring holiness will not only cause people to give more of their wealth to the poor, it will also mean that love permeates all of their interactions to a greater degree, including economic ones. As a consequence, their attitude of being interested in the other will make their economic activity more superabundant. It is a double whammy! More wealth is generated to for rich and poor alike and those for whom it is generated are more inclined in turn to give to others who need it.

It is not surprising that this mistake should be made. Quite apart from consideration of the spiritual aspects of this, which require faith in order to be accepted, it is a basic principle of economics that seems to be beyond so many people who really ought to know better – right up to the level of finance ministers. Wealth is generated out of nothing through economic activity. It is superabundance that creates wealth. Once we realise this then it becomes obvious that tax policy, for example, will be effective if directed towards promoting wealth generation rather than only wealth redistribution.

It is also the reason, incidentally, that there is such fear about the availability of resources for the future that result in advocating population control, contraception and abortion. Without the realisation that man’s ingenuity, inspired by God, can invoke the principle of superabundance to allow greater things to emanate from less and less it is impossible to believe that we can live beyond the next generation.

siBasilicaSuperioreS_Francesco-viThink now of Pope Francis’s call to charity and the poor and his citing of St Francis of Assisi as a model. I claim no insights as to how the Holy Father hopes to see this manifested, but his words have inspired me to think about how I might contribute to what he asks for. Certainly it is true that St Francis himself and the Franciscan order generally is known for their concern for the poor and the model they give of personal poverty. However, Francis was also told to rebuild Christ’s Church. He did both and he did both lovingly and beautifully. So many of the great artists from the time of Francis were third order Franciscans or worked for them at the very least, and they were great innovators – Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Raphael, Michelangelo. They were contributing to the building of great and beautiful churches and this is evidence, I would say, that points to strong belief in the value of the liturgy. Furthermore, these were innovators who were contributing the creation of a whole new culture of beauty, which through a greater appreciation of nature also fostered huge progress in natural science that generated material wealth for society. All of this is consistent with these twin aims of rebuilding the Church and caring for poor. When you rely on God you tap into the infinite. Inspiring people, rich and poor alike to come closer to God will create benefits in every area of our lives.

So it is only those who have a limited either-or mentality in regard to these things who would interpret a call to help the poor as one that also diverts money away from the support of beautiful churches and liturgy.

There is one argument for less ornate and simpler decoration in churches that is valid. That is one put forward by St Bernard of Clairveaux. If the beauty of the church is so alluring that it acts to distract us from Christ, then it is problematic. If you want to know if this applies to you…then ask yourself when you close you eyes: does your imagination takes you to somewhere lower that the art of the churches, or somewhere higher and closer to heaven. If you naturally think of things lower, then beautiful art in churches is beneficial to you. Those who are hindered by beauty in churches are exceptional. Bernard who was a lot higher up the spiritual slopes than most of us was clearly someone for the problem was the opposite. The imagery of the church was lower than the natural place of his imagination, and so were a distraction to him. I am happy that the Franciscans had a charism that meant they were more directly engaged with people beyond their own order and outside the confines of their communities and built churches to elevate the souls of the spiritually weak, such as me.

So please, keep everything in Rome…except for the ugly concrete buildings and abstract garish stained glass windows from the 1960s, you can sell those…if anyone will buy them.



Vermeer – Martha and Mary


Luca Giordano – The Good Samaritan


Ribera – St Francis

Franciscan monastery

Franciscan monastery Assisi



…and if you’re fed up with reading and looking and want to start creating beauty, here’s a unique sacred art class – learn the style of the English gothic psalter…


Icon Class-page-001 (1)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

A. Leo Gregory Bass April 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Well said. Catholics should not be either-or people (except when it comes to sin or righteousness). Beauty does not have to be extravagantly expensive, either.

Also, do you know where I can find icon reproductions or holy cards such as you have on your icon painting class advert? I can find Byzantine works in abundance, and Printery House has quite a bit from Latin iconographers (albeit in the Byzantine style), but I can’t find any gothic icons.

Thank you.


David Clayton April 10, 2013 at 3:50 am

Dear Leo, thank you for this. Re the prayer cards, I wrote an article about some nuns in France who paint and print beautiful ones, the link is here Good luck. David


Nancy Feeman April 9, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Hi David,
This is a very interesting article and I want to share a story I heard once about Mother Teresa. I don’t know it exactly but here is the gist of it.
Mother Teresa was once given a nice sum of money and purchased a beautiful ornate chalice for the Liturgy. When she was questioned about it – the person being surprised that she did not give it directly to the poor – she stated that nothing was too good for the Lord and the celebration of the Mass.
So she would have agreed with your conclusion!


David Clayton April 10, 2013 at 3:48 am

That’s great Nancy, thank you


Janet Angus April 10, 2013 at 4:42 am

Dear David,
Having had the blessing of going to Rome and the Vatican a year ago and seeing much of the beautiful art there, I think it belongs right there. Not only does it praise our God to have such beauty for us to view, there is so much history represented. The museum that is part of St. Peters has gorgeous pieces given to the Church over the many. many years of its history. It would be a shame not to have them there for pilgrims to feast their eyes upon as they visit Rome. Beauty equals blessing.


Anabel April 11, 2013 at 7:10 am

I coldn’t agree more with you all. Yet another point. Much money was indeed spent in art and ornaments, but much of it went to pay not just the artists but masons and carpenters and many other craftmen that otherwise whould have been poor. They were not given the money, but something much better: the chance of earning the money. On the other side, that money spent in (say) the 15-16th centuries in the Vatican (and many other places too) is stil helping many persons. Or is it not all the art accumulated there what thousands of tourists pay for admiring?
Thank you again, David, for your clever remarks.


David Clayton April 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Good point thank you


Allan Wright April 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

Beautiful post-I just shared it on St. Paul Inside the Walls facebook page
We look forward to your visit in Oct.

Peace, Allan


richard April 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm

i remember what mother angelica said when she built her temple back east…(some were
critical on the money she spent)….first i belive God has a hand in building her network…therefore i believe God used her for his will
1. according to her…God told her to “build him a temple”…thus she did..she did not
build a “chapel”, but an elaborate temple
2. she stated…(when some stated too much money was spent on the temple)…”
you people buy the best for yourselves, but not for God….this is a good point in my
4. Art and the churches inspire…have you walked into noncatholic church..they look
a bit like a warehouse


Jacob Ford April 12, 2013 at 7:38 am

The better question: Should the bloodsucking American government sell the modernist menageries it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on to insult its own public??


Glenn Koons April 30, 2013 at 1:12 pm

As with all social ways to help the unfortunate or the poor, widows, orphans,as Paul avers, I do not think we should HAND out money to the poor, to the homeless, to the shiftless. As with missions, the only way that these pictures would help is to be used as money to make work a requirement, to make coming to services mandatory, to teach-preach and share the true Gospel of Jesus for their eternal salvation. It is not good to just give money to the poor to enable them to continue in their ways, life styles unless there is radical change. At least putting the underclass on a path to Jesus, is worth the cost of losing the pictures in some cloistered areas.


Michael April 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Throwing money at poverty defies logic. Since LBJ’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, approximately $1 trillion has been spent on welfare. The poverty rate since then has not budged.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }