The main themes of this poem are suffering, poverty and the hypocrisy of the Church.
Suffering is a central concern of the poem. MacCaig’s imagery, when describing the figure outside the basilica, makes us pity him for his condition. What is clear, however, is that the suffering figure gets little, if any, attention.
The tourists spend time in the basilica itself, obediently following their guide, but we are told that they passed the beggar by - we do not get the impression that anyone stopped or considered his situation.
In essence then, MacCaig forces us to see that society has become blind and apathetic to the suffering of others. It is perhaps deliberately ironic that in order to truly appreciate the art of Giotto, a keen sense of sight is required, yet neither the tourists nor the priest can see the plight of the pitiful existence of this human being.
Poverty is also a prominent theme. The existence of poverty in a world which has built great monuments (like the Basilica of St Francis) suggests a fundamental imbalance within society - the chasm that exists between those with money and those without.
This message is as pertinent today as it has ever been. We are part of a generation that cites
compassion fatigue in response to charitable appeals. It is not enough to tell people that suffering exists and help is needed, so charities employ increasingly emotive imagery to encourage people to donate.
The speaker’s suggestion that the sight of the ruined man outside the church is unremarkable to most reveals the extent of this apathy. Another important irony, of course, is that the beggar sits against the magnificent backdrop of the church built to honour St Francis, who dedicated his life to the poor.
The powerful contrast between the
ruined temple of the beggar and the beautiful basilica reveals how far the church has deviated from the key teachings of Christ, who taught that the poor and marginalised in society were of equal value to those with status and wealth.
Similarly, MacCaig’s caustic depiction of the arrogant vanity of the priest, showing off his knowledge of Giotto to impress the tourists, provokes us to contrast his lack of empathy and compassion with that of St Francis.