Occasionally an artist emerges who is of his time and yet somehow timeless in his art. In our day such an artist has appeared, and it is one whose work seems to be as affecting as its effect is universal. This is all the more surprising given that the art in question is overtly Christian. The artist’s name is Tim Schmalz.
Our story has two beginnings.
The first consisted in hearing ‘voices’. Voices that spoke a tongue unknown and whose echo was as dark as their unearthly words foreboding. The young Tim Schmalz had by then traveled far from his Catholic upbringing. His was a well-worn path away from the Light, and it was one that led him straight to an empty darkness, with these accompanying strange voices all too real evidence of this. They persisted for years. He wondered if he was going mad, or worse if something had gripped him seemingly with no intention of letting him go. Eventually, he managed to free himself from the ‘voices’ and indeed the lifestyle that had provoked them. Today, he prefers to speak little about that period, perhaps understandably so, nevertheless, it is an overture to what comes next, and with that we move to our second beginning.
Schmalz was driving through the downtown streets of Toronto. It was a day like any other: busy people, shoppers, workers going about their business with their own concerns, their own preoccupations, their own lives. So too was the young sculptor, but this day was to change his professional life like no other. In the middle of it all he saw something, which turned out to be someone. A homeless man lying on a bench covered in a blanket as the world hurried past. He stood transfixed by this contrasting scene with its curious juxtaposition. It sparked a conversion, but not of faith, by then that had already taken place, instead it was to be one of artistic direction. Years later this experience was to be incarnated in a statue known as Homeless Jesus, and with it Tim Schmalz’s life was to be changed forever.
It is such a simple concept it is a wonder it hasn’t been tried before. It is often the hallmark of a great work of art, not its complexity – superficially at least – but the simplicity with which it allows an audience to access and connect with that complexity. Homeless Jesus is just that. In the photograph attached you will get some idea, but just an idea – remember it is a sculpture, a three dimensional one, and inviting of interaction in a way a picture on a screen can never be. Remember too that much of its prospective audience shall come to it unawares. Where the sculpture has been erected, often in busy public areas, it takes people by surprise. In one North American city, someone reported ‘him’ to the police as a vagrant. Tellingly, it seems many assume it is a real person until they are right up next to it and then they see it’s not; before, and even more shockingly, they see ‘the marks’: for the feet that stick out from beneath the blanket represent those that 2000 years ago were hammered with nails into a piece of wood.
Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.
Homeless Jesus is starting to appear in cities across the world. This is Christian art that is both as profound as it is proving popular, as strangely solemn as it is à la mode. But, whereas in recent decades many modern artists have taken a perverse pleasure – often one applauded by secular prizes – in mocking and deriding traditional Christian iconography, this is an artistic installation that is respectful of that tradition, refreshingly so.
One such statute is now placed on the approach to St. Peters in Rome. One suspects that the current Holy Father approves. He seemed to when he blessed an earlier temporary representation of the same statute. Regardless of that, this art is definitely of the Christian moment – that is right now.
There is another statute that is equally timely, though. And, as I write, it is making its way from Schmalz’s studio in Canada to Italy. This artwork will eventually reside at San Giovanni Rotondo, the former home of Padre Pio. It’s fitting that it should be exhibited there as it features the former friar now saint.
It is called: I Absolve You. Look at the picture alongside. One sees the saint sat at the Confessional – something he did day in day out for years, but there is something else, something unexpected, if one looks closer. Look at the grill and one notices a hand: one that is pierced. It is, if you like, the hand of He who is beneath the blanket of the aforementioned Homeless Jesus statue. Here we have a veritable catechesis on the Sacrament of Reconciliation – reminding all who care to look that it is to Christ that we confess our sins. Like all great art in a single scene it speaks of much, indeed much more than perhaps first we imagined.
Each year millions visit the shrine dedicated to the stigmatic saint. Many will come for Confession; many will come to beg for the saint’s intercession, there are others, however, who will not know why they have come. But, one suspects that when they do they will see this structure and that in turn will provoke a reaction, as if the saint himself sat once more at the confessional. As we live this Holy Year of Mercy, it is an artistic reminder of the unceasing invitation to forgiveness that calls to each human heart. This is the New Evangelisation set in clay.
Given some of the themes of the current Pontificate: the poor and Divine Mercy, these two works of art seem to be timely, curiously so, but then everything has its time when we believe there is a ‘hand’ – in this case one marked in the same way as the limbs of the Homeless Jesus – guiding all, as indeed it continues to guide the hands of Tim Schmalz.
In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen…
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared on March 25, 2016 on Catholic World Report.