In 2019, Pope Francis unveiled a new bronze sculpture in St. Peter’s Square, “Angels Unawares,” a depiction of migrants throughout history crammed together on a boat with the holy family.
The sculpture’s artist, Timothy Schmalz, told CNA Tuesday that a second cast of the “Angels Unawares” sculpture will be touring different cities around the U.S. before being permanently installed in a yet-to-be-disclosed location in the United States.
The 20-foot-tall bronze statue is based off of Hebrews 13:2, “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.”
“Most of the time when I sculpt, I turn on the Bible. Actually I have it on unabridged tapes read by Steven B. Stevens,” Schmalz told CNA. “Just listening to the Bible as I sculpt … turns my studio into a sort of a chapel and a very spiritual place when the sound is being filled up with Biblical texts.”
For this work, Schmalz also had refugees from Africa visit his studio in Canada to model for some of the 140 different people depicted in the sculpture. He also collected vintage photographs of people’s grandparents, who crossed the Atlantic as immigrants.
“What I wanted to do is create a sculpture that is really inclusive of all migration,” he said. “It exemplifies all historical, all cultures, all races that have ever moved throughout the world.”
“You have a Jew escaping Nazi Germany right beside a Muslim from today escaping Syria and … you have a Polish woman leaving communist Poland right beside an Irish boy escaping from the potato famine,” Schmalz said.
“They’re actually sculpted out of one big mass of clay which is to symbolize unity … in it you have Mary and Joseph being worked within this tapestry of people,” he said.
Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, is also among the faces huddled together on the sculpted boat.
Pope Francis first revealed the “Angels Unawares” sculpture in St. Peter’s Square after the Mass for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees Sept. 29, 2019.
While it is not the first statue to be added to St. Peter’s Square in 400 years as many Vatican pundits claimed — the current statues of St. Peter and St. Paul were commissioned by Pope Pius IX in the mid-19th century — the bronze sculpture is the first post-conciliar statue to be permanently added to the piazza.
“Knowing that it was meant for Saint Peter’s Square, I made sure I created 140 migrants within the piece, sort of a symbolic attachment to the 140 statues around the colonnade,” Schmalz said.
The artist said that he hopes the new piece of art in St. Peter’s Square “confirms the idea that this is a living Church, that it’s not a museum,” as Pope Francis has frequently repeated.
It is “something that has been created in the year 2019, and so it doesn’t necessarily and it should not look like a sculpture that was created in the 1600s,” he said.
It is not his first work for the Vatican – an installation of Schmalz’s “Homeless Jesus” was created for Vatican City in 2016. In November 2019, his sculpture entitled “I was naked and you clothed me” was installed in front of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C.
“Angels Unawares” came about after Cardinal Michael Czerny, then a Jesuit priest, asked Schmalz to think about creating a new sculpture based on the theme of migration.
The artist sent Czerny photos of a small model of his idea, which Fr. Czerny then showed them to Pope Francis who invited Schmalz to come to Rome for further discussions.
“It was probably after six months of working on the concept that I heard that Pope Francis wanted to install it right here in Saint Peter’s Square. And so at that time I began to drop everything in my life to start working on this project,” Schmalz said. “Everyday I woke up at 4 in the morning until basically at then end of the day working obsessively on the piece.”
Schmalz recently completed a live sculpting of a nativity display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. in which visitors to the museum could watch him as he worked.
“I’m always searching for Scripture that I can bring to life, bring to sculpture, bring to art,” he told CNA.
“Within Christianity today, we need to use as many weapons as possible to get our message across because there’s a lot of competition out there for people’s attention on so many different issues,” Schmalz said.
“Christianity is an endless source of creativity for artists,” he said.