“Angels Unawares” acknowledges the challenges facing migrants and refugees
For the first time in nearly 400 years, a new monument has been installed in St. Peter’s Square. “Angels Unawares,” a three-ton, 20-foot sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, takes its place near the ancient Egyptian obelisk and the twin fountains designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maderno.
Pope Francis unveiled “Angels Unawares” Sunday, Sept. 29, on the occasion of Migrant and Refugee World Day. The monument now stands surrounded by Bernini’s massive Doric colonnades, which were constructed in 1660 and which symbolize the outstretched arms of the Church embracing the world. Continuing that theme of welcome, “Angels Unawares” depicts a boat carrying 140 migrants and refugees, from periods of stress throughout recorded history up to the present day. That number, according to the artist, matches the 140 statues of saints who look down from the colonnade. The inspiration, Schmalz explains, is a New Testament passage from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
When I caught up with Timothy Schmalz by phone, he was seated in St. Peter’s Square, watching as tourists and locals viewed his recently unveiled work for the first time. Schmalz’s earlier sculpture “Homeless Jesus” was blessed by Pope Francis in 2013, and features a life-size bronze image of Christ sleeping on a park bench and huddled against the cold in a blanket, the wounds from the crucifixion evident on his bare feet. Schmalz was humbled by the Vatican’s invitation to design a sculpture for St. Peter’s Square. He explained that he had caught the attention of staff at the Vatican because of his series of sculptures based on Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. That series included “Homeless Jesus,” as well as “When I Was Hungry and Thirsty,” “When I Was a Stranger” and “When I Was in Prison.”
Five years ago, Schmalz was invited by Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny (now Cardinal Czerny), Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to design a sculpture focusing on immigrants. Father Czerny liked the small model he submitted, as did others at the Vatican, including Pope Francis. “When I first got the approval to create a large version of the sculpture for St. Peter’s Square,” Schmalz reported,
…I dropped everything and began working on it. As it happens, I got it done about a month before this important and solemn event [Migrant and Refugee World Day] was going to be celebrated. It’s also the feast today of St. Michael the Archangel; and the whole sculpture is centered on the angels. Not St. Michael specifically, but an angel protects the migrants as they flee to safety.
The sculpture, according to Schmalz, reveals that the sacred is to be found in the stranger, including refugees and migrants. Figures on the sculpture represent all historical eras and all cultures, and include a Hasidic Jew escaping Nazi Germany, a modern-day Syrian Muslim, a Cherokee man on the Trail of Tears, a pregnant Polish woman escaping Communism, and an Irish boy finding relief from the potato famine. There are ancient refugees, some from the biblical era, and others who migrated through Ellis Island to find a new home in America. An Italian immigrant carries with him a bag of food, suggesting that he and others brought life to the New World as they immigrated to America.
Schmalz hoped that his sculpture would encourage the faithful to reflect on the serious problems facing people who seek to escape war and famine, those who attempt to bring their babies and their wives to security and safety in a new land. “As the statue was unveiled,” Schmalz reports, “there were people coming up dead in the sea near Lampedusa.”
Indeed, six years after a shipwreck off Lampedusa cost the lives of 386 people, refugees continue to flee Turkey by boat. The Albanian Navy rescued 110 migrants in the waters between Turkey and Greece in September; and the NGO Alarm Phone, a volunteer-staffed hotline for migrants at the Mediterranean, was alerted in the last two weeks of September to 19 distress cases in the Aegean region. The tragedy to which Timothy Schmalz referred involved a boat which capsized near the small Greek island of Oinousses, resulting in the drowning of seven people — including an infant and a toddler — in the eastern Aegean Sea.
Schmalz’ Monuments Receive Worldwide Acclaim
Asked about his other works, Schmalz told the Register that “Homeless Jesus” has just been installed in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, at the request of the cardinal. In November, another “Homeless Jesus” sculpture will be installed in the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, in Mexico City. Meanwhile, the city of Washington, DC, has given approval to St. Matthew’s Cathedral to install Schmalz’ “When I Was Naked, You Clothed Me” on the sidewalk near the cathedral.
Schmalz is currently working on what he calls “one of the most haunting, horrific sculptures I’ve ever done,” another 20-foot sculpture on human trafficking. That sculpture, which has more than 100 figures in it, features 19th-century slave St. Josephine Bakhita opening the ground and allowing the oppressed to go free. Schmalz got the idea, he says, from the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When the townspeople of Hamelin reneged on their promise to pay him for ridding their town of rats, the Pied Piper led the town’s children out of the city gates to a spot where the earth opened, capturing them underground. “This is a message which people need to see,” Schmalz said.
Human trafficking is so horrific, and it’s omnipresent. There’s more slavery in the world right now than ever before in human history. Babies are being sold as sex toys in Africa; slaves are being sold at auction. Human trafficking will always exist unless we bring it out from underground.
He hoped that the human trafficking sculpture, once finished, will be installed in London, England, which is a major hub of human trafficking.