“It’s all beautiful, but it’s a shame,” a woman told me as we looked at a chalice that had belonged to Pope Leo XIII. It was an impressive object, with four gold evangelists under gothic canopies; in blue-enamel circles on its base, the papal crest was set in diamonds. Usually housed in the Sistine Chapel’s sacristy, the chalice is one of the objects on loan from the Vatican for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” It was too luxurious for my interlocutor, who thought the popes should have given that money to the poor instead of spending so lavishly on themselves: “I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind.”
Leo was not buying for himself, however. Nor did Pope Pius IX purchase the three tiaras in the exhibit—one containing more than nineteen thousand precious stones, the vast majority of them diamonds. Like so many of the papal objects on display, they were gifts, commissioned by towns, religious communities, and royalty. The Austrian Empress Maria Anna Carolina sent Pius IX a set of twelve vestments, with embroideries of biblical scenes and saints that have the intricacy and vitality of paintings. It took fifteen women sixteen years to make them.