Poverty – and the causes of poverty

The Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby uses Giotto’s art in the Scrovegni Chapel as a lens to examine economic inequality and the causes of poverty, continuing our timely series on the “Art of Poverty”. 

If artistic representations of poverty are common, what about the presentation in art form of the causes of poverty?

Poverty and those experiencing it are artistically presented to us by writers and artists in every age and place. Less frequent are presentations of the systemic causes of poverty in the economic arrangements that foster inequality.

It is those economic arrangements that contemporary movements in theology have sought to bring into the open: theologians of liberation have brought together biblical studies, the interpretation of doctrine, and economic and political theory to generate a whole movement, not to mention a vigorous debate, about the meaning of salvation in relation to the oppression of the poor as it engendered by the way capitalism has come to work.

Yet criticism of the causes of the poverty long predates the political and economic debates of modernity. Those ancient debates are focussed principally on the issue of usury, the lending of money at interest. Where might we find artistic representation of that issue, and thereby of the diagnosis of poverty?

My research into the history of that debate proceeded with insufficient attention to that question until the prospective publisher of my Grace and Mortgage: The Language of Faith and the Debt of the World[1] suggested using for the cover a detail from Giotto di Bondone’s painting of Christ ejecting the money changers and the sellers of animals from the temple in Jerusalem, a suggestion I accepted without a great deal of thought.

That changed when a colleague who had returned from seeing the painting in its original setting alerted me to its historical background. The painting is part of a fresco undertaken by Giotto of the lives of the Virgin Mary and of Christ in the Chapel of the Annunciation commissioned by the wealthy Paduan banker Enrico di Scrovegni. The chapel was intended to be built alongside a substantial residence Scrovegni was building for his family. Significantly, the work was begun on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1303 and completed on the same day in 1305. My informant suggested that the painting had a more specific relevance to the content of my book in that Scrovegni had commissioned the chapel as a penance for the sin of usury.

Whether the commission was offered at the specific injunction of Scrovegni’s confessor is not clear, but in their book about the Chapel Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona draw attention to Scrovegni’s epitaph in which the hope is expressed that Enrico’s patronage of the chapel would bring him ‘eternal mercy’ for his sin of usury.[2] Enrico believed that the intercession of Mary might save  him from the fate that befell his father Reginaldo as Dante had, in The Divine Comedy, represented Reginaldo  and others as guilty of usury, a sin considered by Dante, theologians, canonists, and preachers to be a direct, violent attack on the word of God. A painted chapel, Enrico believed, could save his soul.

So it is not surprising that among the pictures in a fresco of the life of the Virgin and of Christ there should appear this representation of Christ with a threatening face and wielding the whip of cords, a symbol of judgment and a warning for him to look upon when he and his family worshipped in the chapel.

Image by Valentina Ficuciello from Pixabay

It is on many counts not surprising that Christ’s ‘cleansing of the temple’ should be a subject that has gained, and continues to gain, the attention of a large number of artists. It is an event in the life of Christ attested in all four canonical gospels,[3] in the case of the synoptists with the implication of a connection with the plot to arrest Jesus and in the case of John right at the start of Christ’s ministry and the cause of immediate controversy. The cleansing of the temple is an event of high drama, portraying an aspect of Christ’s character that lends itself very obviously to artistic representation. Uncomfortable as some find this display of anger and even violence on the part of Christ and its contrast with their sense of him as ever kind and merciful, others find their imagination engaged and a sense of solidarity in seeing his anger and moral outrage. Bernardino Mei, El Greco, Giordano – the list is endless. Given the prominence and imaginative development shown by what are, in the gospels, passages each only involving two or three verses, the incident must rank as one of the most engaging in the life of Christ.

Yet the presence of this picture in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, and what we can gather from its inclusion there about the motivation of Enrico Scrovegni himself, takes us into a further reflection on the character of ‘economy’ and the relationship between modern systemic thought and its place in the faith and philosophy of the ancients. Both represent ‘systems’: the modern with the management of national economic policies, global finance and therefore the realms of economic ‘science’, the causes and effects of certain actions by states, corporate bodies, central banks and individuals. The ancient ‘system’ is to do with human destiny, God’s final judgment on human affairs and on individuals in relation to their eternal destiny. Reginaldo Scrovegni’s imagined fate is one that Enrico commissions Giotto to represent in the whip and threatening face of Christ and thereby hopes, through sacrificing some of his ill-gotten gains to represent the themes of judgment and mercy, to avoid a similar fate.

The ancient system of heaven, hell, death and judgment has at its heart the spiritual danger of money. What the modern economic system demonstrates clearly is the wisdom of the ancients in noticing the fundamental evil of gaining wealth by and using wealth for exploitative purposes. That ancient wisdom perceived that using wealth to obtain wealth fundamentally subverts the relationship necessary for a healthy economy between labour and reward. The ancient word for interest, tokos, points to wealth begotten by wealth rather than by work, and as such became through the decisions of Councils illicit for clergy and then for all Christians. The repetition of those conciliar decrees reveals both the importance of that insight and the difficulty of persuading the faithful, ordained and lay, to heed the injunction! The rentier economy where wealth is what generates wealth was to ancient eyes always and in principle exploitative because the wealth obtained from wealth had to be produced by someone else’s labour and to be obtained by withholding some of that due reward. Thus the taking of interest was directly causative of poverty and would be judged as such. (One product of the neglect of those insights was the ferocious Qur’anic injunctions against usury.[4])

That ancient systemic view of usury had its root in the levitical prohibitions against it, together with the jubilee requirement that indebtedness had to be redeemed by the mechanism of jubilee. But even later when theology and canon law adjusted itself to take account of a mercantile economy, there remained restrictions on when interest could be charged and at what rate. Allowing lending at interest was always a debated concession.

There is not space here to write in detail about what happens when the wisdom of the ancient system – that economic relations have ultimate significance for human destiny – is cast aside. But certain things have emerged with striking clarity through the crises of this century and our lack of an accepted moral and theological basis for the governing of our economy. As I reflected further on what I had learned during the writing of Grace and Mortgage, it became clear that the contemporary acceptance of wealth from wealth has immediate consequences to which the wisdom of the ancients, and Christ’s whip of cords and face of judgment, should properly remain as a warning.

So there has been a vast literature examining the character of money and its dependence in modern economies on precisely the rentier, wealth-from-wealth, economic system which is what modern capitalism has become. The fact that money has moved from being an instrument of trade to a wealth asset in itself created by, and for, banks to make more of represents the establishment of a system with all the marks of what the Scrovegnis, father and son, did and Enrico, we understand, believed himself to be judged for.

The result of that I have very briefly, but theologically, described in my subsequent An Idol Unmasked: A Faith Perspective on Money.[5] But it has also, and in secular terms, been very clearly shown in Thomas Piketty’s magisterial Capital in the Twenty-First Century with its account of a world in which wealth inequality has vastly outstripped income inequality as a source of destitution for many and a level of inequality that affects us all.[6]

the whip of cords and face of judgment may now be expressed differently but not less potently in the rise of sea levels, in migrants’ uncontrollable and desperate searches for safety and the ultimate judgement represented by Giotto coming irresistibly towards us.

It used to be confidently asserted that the ancients had failed to learn that the capitalist system, with the promise of wealth from wealth, meant that there were no longer limits to growth and that the assumption that if there were winners there had to be losers was mistaken. However, the whip of cords and the face of judgment may now be expressed differently but not less potently in the rise of sea levels, in migrants’ uncontrollable and desperate searches for safety and the ultimate judgement represented by Giotto coming irresistibly towards us.

[1] Peter Selby, Grace and Mortgage: The Language of Faith and the Debt of the World (London: DLT 1997), reissued 2009. When Pendlebury Press reissued the book in 2018 they made use of a copy of Bellotto’s painting.

[2] Anna Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

[3] Matthew 21.12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19.45-46, John 2.13-17

[4] See, for example, Tarek El Diwany, The Problem with Interest (London: Kreatoc, 2003).

[5] Peter Selby, An Idol Unmasked: A Faith Perspective on Money (London: DLT, 2014).

[6] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2014).


  • Peter Selby holds honorary professorships at Worcester University and King’s College London. He is a former Bishop of Worcester and Bishop to Prisons and Past President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.

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