Priceless means priceless when it comes to great art

Priceless means priceless when it comes to great art

By Ireneed (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ireneed (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
To follow up on my earlier post about calls for the Catholic Church to sell the art collections of the Vatican to give to the poor, I had a few more thoughts. The first thought is “Then what?”

After we’ve sold off the Michelangelo’s and the Bernini’s and the patrimony of 2,000 years of art given for the glory of God and then distributed all the money, then what? It’s all gone. The great treasures of Christian art will be hanging in the private mansions of billionaires or in sterile museum galleries instead of in churches where they inspire men to lift their hearts and minds to God. And the poor will still be poor because even if we sold it for a few billion dollars it won’t even make a dent in material poverty. Frankly, the Church already spends billions on charity worldwide through the combined activity of all the faithful and will continue to do so. Must we sell the artwork too?

Frankly, it’s crass even to consider it. For some reason, “priceless” has ceased to mean “you can’t put a price on it” and now means “really, really expensive.” No, the art and architecture created by the men and women putting forth all their talent and skill as an act of praise for God really is priceless. You cannot put a price on it because it’s not simply an object of utilitarian economic value.

What a drab world it would be if everything had a price tag: the Mona Lisa; Chartre’s windows; the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes; love; friendship; wives and children. What sad utilitarianism we would subject ourselves to if there were no beauty for beauty’s sake, no art for God’s sake, but only products for economic transactions’ sake.

The poor know well the value of art and beauty for the glory of God. Chartre’s windows were not merely decorative but are a catechism for people who were mainly illiterate, telling the stories of salvation in colored glass for a people looking for hope. When you enter the cathedral, your eyes are drawn up to the soaring heights as a rainbow of light streams around and you feel as though you have entered the throne room of Heaven. If that’s how it can affect someone raised on a steady diet of the wonders of Hollywood special effects, imagine what it could do for someone who’d never seen a building larger than his local lord’s keep. His imagination would soar.

Has anyone ever asked the proverbial poor if we should sell off the treasures of the Vatican for their benefit? Perhaps they’d be horrified at the prospect. After all, held by the Church, the treasures belong to all mankind and they are given proper and due reverence. Sold off, they’d belong to a man to dispose of as he wills.

Priceless artwork is priceless precisely because it cannot and should not be sold. Ever. It’s value goes beyond dollars, which themselves are not the ultimate cure for all that ails humanity. That’s a lesson those of us who live in the consumerism-addled West would do well to learn.

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  • While I (and most of my friends) agree with you, Dom, to the nth degree, we are dealing with 21st century iconoclasts. The spiritual sons of those heretics of the 16th and 17th centuries that destroyed beautiful statuary and frescoes in Gothic churches and cathedrals all over Europe. These people still honestly believe… ask them, and they will give you an earful… that Catholics worship statues, that we worship Mary and the saints. No amount of apologetical discussion will cause them to think differently. And as to the Catholics who advocate this, while I hate to say it, I encounter this every week at Mass, when people say that we need to sell all of our gold plated chalices and patens and stained glass to feed the poor. The have been, at a deep level, Protetantized by their constant contact with the overwhelmingly Protestant culture here in the South.

    Calls for this are not going to go away. All we can do is to keep on trying to explain and engage them in debate. Some days it wearies me to the bone to think of the years I have spent defending Holy Mother Church and Her teachings. But then, I think of the blessed martyrs for the Faith who died defending Her. And I quit feeling sorry for myself and get back in the fight. God bless.