VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A self-proclaimed “visual ambassador” of Pope Francis’ message, Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz is on his way to becoming the most prolific Catholic sculptor under the pontiff’s tenure, with another installation at the Vatican this week.
Schmalz, whose most famous statue, “Homeless Jesus,” has been recast and installed in more than 100 locations around the world, has focused much of his work on the central themes of Francis’ pontificate: migration, human trafficking and poverty.
On Wednesday (Nov. 9), Pope Francis blessed the artist’s latest statue in St. Peter’s Square ahead of the 6th World Day of the Poor on Sunday, which the pope established in 2016 to highlight the suffering of the poor.
The bronze sculpture, named “Sheltering,” depicts a life-size homeless man and a hovering dove, representing the Holy Spirit, pulling a blanket over the man. Schmalz hopes the piece can act as a reminder for Christians and non-Christians alike to aid the suffering around them.
“It is our spiritual duty to take care of the least in our community and society,” Schmalz told Religion News Service in a video call from his New York studio on Monday (Nov. 14).
Over his 25-year career, Schmalz has created numerous statues that are installed in dioceses, learning centers and churches around the world. The Bible, he said, has been “the endless well” of his creativity, inspiring his smaller works as well as his more ambitious, large-scale projects.
“Homeless Jesus” — which depicts a life-size man asleep on a park bench covered almost completely by a blanket, except for his feet which reveal punctured flesh — was Schmalz’s first artwork to appear in Rome, installed in 2016 in the courtyard of Sant’Egidio, in front of the Office of Papal Charities. A similar statue, of Jesus appearing as a shrouded beggar recognizable only by his stigmata, or crucifixion wounds, was installed at the Vatican in 2017.
In “Sheltering,” Schmalz said, he chose not to feature Jesus but instead to make “the Holy Spirit the hero of the sculpture.”
“I didn’t want Christianity to get in the way of the Christian message,” he said, explaining that the dove, as a universal symbol of peace and spirituality, could be more approachable to non-Christians.
While homeless people and birds are common sights in cities, he said that bringing the two together offers a message that usually escapes urban dwellers, often buried in their phones. “The actual homeless person is not shocking people,” Schmalz said, adding that if his sculpture can capture the increasingly volatile attention of people, “then it’s a great use of artwork.”