About the Sculpture

Schmalz Refugee Family

Photo credit: Ken Homan, S.J.

When Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, commissioned Canadian figure artist Timothy Schmalz in 2016 to create a piece based on migration, Schmalz immediately knew which scripture he wanted to use as inspiration: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

To figure out the positioning of the many figures he planned to include, he crafted a two-foot model, which he sent to Cardinal Czerny so he could see the progress. Cardinal Czerny mentioned it to Pope Francis, who requested that the model be brought to St. Peter’s Square so he could bless it.

"The next thing I knew, I received a wonderful email requesting that the sculpture be life-sized so it could be installed in St. Peter’s Square.”

The installation of the original casting of Angels Unawares took place in Rome at St. Peter’s Square on September 29, 2019 – the 105th World day of Migrants and Refugees. There it remains permanently as a visual reminder of Christ’s mandate and Christians’ responsibility to provide hospitality to all.

“The historical significance of putting a welcoming boat of migrants, refugees and immigrants sailing into St. Peter’s square, heading toward St. Peter’s Basilica … that’s just amazing!” said Schmalz.

For Schmalz, it was important that all nations, all religions, and all historical periods be reflected in the 20-foot long, 3.5-ton sculpture to demonstrate the overwhelming impact that migration has had on humanity. To that end, he fashioned a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany alongside Muslims escaping civil war in Syria and a traumatized Cherokee walking the Trail of Tears. A young lad leaving Ireland’s potato famine neighbors a Polish woman fleeing her country’s communism, while Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, is nestled within the crowd, and Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus attempt to flee King Herod’s wrath.

While many might classify the sculpture as an “active” piece given the figurines’ migratory movement and their apparent clamoring for space within the boat’s cramped and confining quarters, Schmalz describes the piece as “very, very quiet.”

“The overall sculpture and the way it’s designed hides the angel,” he admits. “The angel doesn’t appear to be in front, which makes the message more powerful and discreet.”

Yet the angel can be seen from whichever angle one looks.

“The wings float overhead as a symbolic reminder that the angel belongs to all people,” said Schmalz. “It is a reminder that every human being is sacred and spiritual, and we should treat them that way.”

Another “quiet” but powerful characteristic of the sculpture is its ability to “echo” the statues of the saints that sit atop the outstretched colonnaded porticoes designed to welcome pilgrims and tourists to St. Peter’s Square. Schmalz revealed that he designed the sculpture with 140 figures – the exact number of saints crowning the colonnades – to connect the contemporary realities of refugees and migrants to the historic realities of the saints.

“Many of the saints were martyrs,” he said. “A lot of refugees and migrants have been martyrs in a sense. The sacrifices that they’ve made are similar to the hardships of the early saints, so I wanted to make that connection in the artwork.”

Schmalz does not consider it coincidence that the second casting of Angels Unawares is beginning its cross-country tour at the same time that statues and their significance are being scrutinized. He acknowledges that historically, statues have represented political figures who have been the cause of much division. In response, he sees Angels Unawares as a unifying, visual welcoming. 

“It’s one thing to say you’re welcoming,” he admitted. “But it’s another thing to say it with art. This statue is basically all about welcoming, about acceptance. It says you belong. It’s a big sculpture, but I think it needs to be big so that people can see its very important message.”