New Monument in the Vatican Encourages Compassion for Refugees

‘We have all come from another place,’ says artist Timothy P. Schmalz

angels unaware
Pope Francis attends the unveiling of "Angels Unaware" by Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz. Photo by Vatican Pool - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

A Cherokee man on the Trail of Tears. A Jewish man fleeing Nazi Germany. A pregnant Polish woman escaping Communism. A Syria war child refugee. These figures are among 140 individuals represented in a dramatic new monument in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican that seeks to encourage tolerance and compassion for refugees.

According to Hyperallergic’s Hakim Bishara, the sculpture “Angels Unaware” by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz, was unveiled by Pope Francis during a special Mass on September 29, the 105th annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In a message, the Pope called on the faithful to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate.”

“Violent conflicts and all-out wars continue to tear humanity apart; injustices and discrimination follow one upon the other; economic and social imbalances on a local or global scale prove difficult to overcome,” the Pope said. “And above all it is the poorest of the poor and the most disadvantaged who pay the price.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly advocated against the mistreatment of refugees—a cause that has become ever more pressing amid Europe’s so-called “migrant crisis.” Though the number of refugees streaming over Europe’s borders has dropped since 2015 and 2016, displaced people continue to make the journey, which can be perilous. Just this week, at least 13 women, some of them pregnant, died when their boat capsized off the coast of Italy.

In 2016, the Vatican New Department Of Refugees And Migration reached out to Schmalz and asked him to create a monument that would speak to this devastation.

Schmalz tells Megan Williams of the CBC that Vatican officials were looking for “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." So Schmalz opted to depict figures from around the world and across history, all of whom are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on a boat carrying them to a new future. Some appear joyful, but others are weeping.

"I wanted to reflect the different states of mind and emotion involved in a migrant's journey," Schmalz explains.

The artist chose to create 140 figures to correspond to the number of Saint statues on the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square. An angel stands in the middle of the crowded boat, its wings hovering over the migrants, in a reference to Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

A model of the statue received Pope Francis’ blessing—literally—in 2017, paving the way for the recent unveiling. Schmalz was on hand to watch the Pope inspect his work and hear his comments.

“I don’t speak Italian so I am not sure what he said,” the artist tells Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times. “But he put his hand to his heart and pointed to it. I read that as him saying that he likes it.”

“Angels Unaware” will stand in St. Peter's Square “for a while,” according to Williams, and a nearly five-foot version has been permanently installed in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall in Rome. Speaking to Bishara, Schmalz notes that the monument, which represents an experience shared by diverse groups of people, is a reminder that “we have all come from another place.”

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