VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis has enshrined his commitment to immigrants and refugees with a statue dedicated to the “angels unawares” who every day put their lives at risk to find a new life in a new nation.
The artwork is the first to be added to St. Peter’s Square in 400 years and depicts an issue central to Francis’ pontificate.
“As Christians, we cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to ‘our’ group,” the pope said during his homily at a Mass on Sunday (Sept. 29) dedicating the artwork.
“We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond. Let us ask the Lord for the grace of tears, the tears that can convert our hearts before such sins.”
At the end of the Mass, which marked the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis unveiled a 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high bronze and clay statue depicting 140 immigrants of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities.
The piece is inspired by a reading from the Bible: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The statue is meant to be enjoyed from 360 degrees, each angle showing a unique face, eyes and hands.
It was commissioned by the Vatican department for migrants and refugees, led by soon-to-be Cardinal Michael Czerny and spearheaded by the pope himself.
"It's definitely not an ornament. It’s basically a 20-foot-long instrument that can be used to guide people in understanding that all human life is sacred," said the creator of the artwork, Timothy Schmalz, in an interview Tuesday with Religion News Service.
"To place the sculpture here, in St. Peter's Square, means putting it in the heart of Catholicism and that's exactly what Pope Francis wants. He wants this message of compassion and care for the most marginalized, the displaced, to be in the heart of all of us."
The artist took inspiration from pictures of refugees and immigrants throughout history — from persecuted Jews to Christians fleeing the Middle East, from Irish escaping the potato famine to Poles running from communism. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are also hidden among the figures.
At the center of the crowd of 140 migrants, the same number as the saintly figures topping the colonnade, are a pair of wings directed at the sky.
Schmalz already has a reputation for creating works that move and inspire the inhabitants of the Eternal City. His works “When I Was Hungry and Thirsty” and “When I Was Sick” can be seen in front of basilicas and hospitals in Rome. They represent realistic human figures, cloaked and huddled in the corners of streets like the many poor of the Italian capital. At second glance, their hands show the wounds of Jesus on the cross.
"To pull on some of the beautiful images that the Bible gives and translate it into three-dimensional objects and placing them in a space of our daily life is fantastic," the artist said, stating that there are many such "blind spots" in the holy book for artists to be inspired by.
To place the new piece, engineers removed cobblestones to create a structural support and navigated the intricate caves beneath St. Peter's Square, where the art will receive considerable attention and exposure. While it remains uncertain for how long the artwork will remain, objectors took to social media to protest the statue's politically charged message and location.
But according to experienced Italian archaeologist, lecturer and guide Ester Scoditti, the statue is precisely where it’s meant to be.
“Since Pope Francis is the reigning pontiff and this artwork reflects a cornerstone of his pontificate, I believe the statue should remain visible,” she told RNS.
“The statues above the colonnades represent both saints and martyrs, so there isn’t just an explosion of joy in (Renaissance artist Gianlorenzo) Bernini’s statues. I find a certain similarity, in fact, by juxtaposing the suffering of today with that endured by the martyrs of the past.”
Schmalz also believes his work to reflect its historical environment. Bernini created the colonnade of St. Peter's Square to look like extended arms open to embrace humanity, Schmalz said, and today they embrace a bronze crowd of immigrants, in which everyone can feel represented.
“People when they come here can see themselves within it,” he said, adding that he saw Sikh people in the square peeking at the turban emerging from his statue and a Muslim woman intent on looking at the image of a refugee wearing a veil.
Scoditti, who authored the book “A Guide to the Basilica of St. Peter,” said every pontificate has used art to promote a message or social cause.
“It’s not new in the Vatican to see — sometimes slowly — works of modern art,” she said. “The Vatican has always been very sensitive toward art in antiquity and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be today.”
She mentioned as an example a piece of the Berlin Wall, which was gifted to St. John Paul II for his commitment to bringing down the Iron Curtain and today is displayed as art in the Vatican gardens — a reminder to passersby of the cost of a divided world.
"By placing a new sculpture in St. Peter's Square, it also states that the Catholic Church is not a museum," Schmalz said, and "people are going to accept that the church is a moving thing, it changes."
It took one year for the 3.8-ton piece to be completed and months to prepare the square to welcome it. Pope Francis wanted it to be placed smack in the middle of the square, Schmalz said, as a clear statement that the statue — and more importantly, its message — is here to stay.