Vatican Corner 02-02-2020

On Sept. 29, 2019, the first new sculpture since the mid-19th century was installed in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis wanted it located at the busy tourist area in front of St. Peter’s Basilica “so that all will be reminded of the evangelical challenge of hospitality.” The 20-foot-tall bronze statue is entitled “Angels Unawares” and is the work of Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. It depicts 140 migrants and refugees from different cultures and from different times in history all crammed together on a boat with the holy family and all headed for an uncertain future. The statue’s name comes from Hebrews 13:2, “Be welcome to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.” Hovering above the refugee’s heads is a set of angel wings. Artist Schmalz said “I wanted to reflect the different states of mind and emotion involved in a migrant’s journey.” He said “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.” Schmatz chose 140 figures as a homage to the 140 statues of saints that surround his sculpture atop Bernini’s colonnade surrounding St. Peter’s Square. Schmatz wanted to create symmetry between the old and new. In the sculpture Native American Indians are shown chased from their lands, Africans are being sold into bondage, An Irish boy is escaping the potato famine and a Polish woman is leaving communist Poland. Chinese laborers and Europeans are searching for a better life. Jews are fleeing genocide, Syrians, Vietnamese boat people and Africans are fleeing war and famine. Michael Czerny, the Pope’s top adviser on the issue of migrants and refugees had urged artist Schmatz to begin work on this statue to conveyed migration not as a crisis, “but something that people have done for thousands of years.” The figures are actually sculpted out of one big mass of clay which is to symbolize unity. The idea of including Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus came to the artist when he heard Pope Francis say that “Joseph and Mary were refugees once too,” when they fled from King Herod’s decree. Artist Schmatz said he used a lot of actual, real people in the piece, using photographs of immigrants that people gave him and even had refugees from Africa pose for the piece. Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants is included and Vatican adviser Michael Czerny’s parents who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia are also depicted in the sculpture. Artist Schmalz first worked on the concept for six months and created a model which Pope Francis blessed. Then a five-foot version was created and finally the 20-foot version. The final bronze statue weighs 3.5 tons and before it could be placed in the Square, cobblestones had to be removed and a concrete base poured to support the weight which is above the catacombs where the persecuted religious had been buried. Pope Francis was very very happy with the final product. Artist Schmalz said he hopes his new artwork in St. Peter’s Square “confirms the idea that this is a living Church, that it’s not a museum,” as Pope Francis has said repeatedly. Schmalz says it’s a sculpture which he believes will hold people’s attention and also tell a historical and cultural story. “We’ve all come from someplace, and I think that the sculpture shows that, a belief that Father Michael Czerny holds deep: The refugee crisis is not a crisis, it’s just what people do, Migration. It’s a visual lesson but also a visual interpretation of scripture. There are plans that a second cast of the sculpture will be touring different cities around the U.S. before being permanently installed in a yet-to-be disclosed location in the U.S.