Canadian artist's bronze statue depicting plight of refugees in boat unveiled at St. Peter's Square in Rome

A Canadian artist’s statue depicting “the different states of mind and emotion” of refugees in a boat was unveiled Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in Rome following a mass by the Pope, who decried indifference to the plight of migrants around the world.

Timothy Schmalz, of Kitchener-Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, created the bronze, six-metre-high Angels Unawares statue that was unveiled in the historic piazza, located in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Pope and four refugees from various parts of the world together uncovered Angels Unawares on the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.

Schmalz said his goal in creating Angels Unawares was to elicit the same empathy and identification with the subjects as his Homeless Jesus series, featured in front of churches around the world — in this case, for another group of people often considered a burden to society.

“I wanted to reflect the different states of mind and emotion involved in a migrant’s journey,” Schmalz, who was in Rome for the unveiling, told CBC. “Some of the figures are absolutely joyful that they’re heading to a new beginning, others are weeping because they’ve left their loved ones behind.”

While Angels Unawares is a work of art, he said, he also see it as “an ad for being welcoming to strangers.”

Statue ‘shows the faces of the world’

The bronze statute depicts migrants crammed in a raft or boat, and heading for an uncertain future. Their clothing signify they hail from different cultures and historical upheavals, among them a Hasidic Jew escaping Nazi Germany, a Syrian fleeing civil war, a Polish refugee running from the Communist regime.

Hovering above the refugees’ heads is a set of angel wings. Schmalz’s website says the inspiration for his statue comes from a passage from Hebrews 13:2 in the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

The inspiration for Angels Unawares comes from a passage from Hebrews 13:2 in the New Testament: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Foundation, a Canadian charity set up by Rudy Bratty, a developer and the son of immigrants from the northern Italian region of Friuli, funded Schmalz’s work on Angels Unawares.

In an interview with CBC, Chris Bratty, a third-generation Canadian who was in Rome for the unveiling, said it was “remarkable to be the patron of this sculpture,” which “represents my family over the last 100 years.”

He said Angels Unawares “represents Canada. Embracing other people is a Canadian trait,” and the statue “represents the hope and optimism of immigrants, which is important to Canadians….. that hope and optimism of a new beginning and the chance of a better life. It was important because Tim’s sculpture shows the faces of the world.” 

The history of Angels Unawares 

Schmalz said Rev. Michael Czerny, a Canadian priest and the Pope’s top adviser on the issue of migrants and refugees, and himself an immigrant — from Czechoslovakia — had urged him to begin work on a statue addressing migration.

Schmalz said that, after his Homeless Jesus was installed at the Vatican, he and Czerny met, “and he asked me to come up with a new design on the idea of migration that conveyed that migration is not a crisis, but something that people have done for thousands of years.”

In 2016, the Vatican New Department of Refugees and Migration requested that he create the statue.

The Pope and four refugees from various parts of the world were at the unveiling of Angels Unawares, which is six metres tall. (Vincenzo Pinto/Reuters)

Schmalz crafted a small model of the statue first. The Pope, who has made the advocacy of migrants and refugees a central part of his papacy, saw a photograph of the model and asked to bless it, which he did two years ago.

On Oct. 5, Czerny, a Montreal-raised Jesuit who has dedicated his life social justice issues, will be among the 13 men the Pope will elevate to cardinal — the highest rank in the Roman Catholic Church below the pontiff.

Along with the Angels Unawares sculpture now in St. Peter’s Square for the next while, on Monday, a 1.5-metre version will be permanently installed in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall in Rome.

‘Something in 3D’ moves people, artist says

After the global success of Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus series — with one now on its way to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City and another to be installed outside St. James United Church in Montreal in November — the artist said he has become a huge believer in the power of public art. The statue of a man wrapped against the cold and lying on a public bench is identifiable as Jesus by the holes in his feet.

“It’s that tactile idea, of something in 3D, that can really move people, rather than just seeing a photograph.”

He said numerous people contacted him saying Homeless Jesus moved them to set up homeless programs or donate to shelters in their cities.

With his latest work, Angels Unawares, positioned literally in the epicentre of modern-day Catholicism, the impact, Schmalz hopes, will be all the more transformative – both for those who see it, and his church.

“A lot of people may think the Vatican is just a museum,” he said. “The idea is that the church is not a museum, that it’s a living, growing part of our world today.”

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