This is Jesus Christ, thought artist Timothy Schmalz while mesmerized by a homeless man lying on the sidewalk on University Avenue. It was just before Christmas 2011, and the figure was wrapped in a sleeping bag in the middle of the day.
Haunted by this image, Schmalz, a Christian sculptor and public monuments artist, felt compelled to visually translate it. He cast the hollow, life-size figure lying on a New York–style bench in bronze. It weighs 320 kilograms and Schmalz says it will last 500 years.
The figure is wrapped in a heavy blanket and the face and hands cannot be seen. Only the pierced feet of Christ are visible, which Schmalz says gives the sculpture a sense of universality.
“This is a Christian message that has to be seen. People have to do that unfolding of the message that when they see a homeless person, they are really seeing Jesus Christ,” said Schmalz. He hopes that from a distance, passersby will think the sculpture is a real person and approach it.
Schmalz calls the sculpture a perpetual homily that represents one of the most powerful New Testament messages, from Matthew 25:31-46: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
“When you help one of the most marginalized people in the world, you are actually helping Jesus Christ,” said Schmalz.
Small, who lives in St. Jacobs, Ont., left Toronto 20 years ago. He is disturbed to see so many people living and sleeping on the street. So he spent a year on and off building the sculpture in a Beijing studio and then shipping it back Toronto.
Regis has received the first Jesus the Homeless, with a second to be installed at King’s College in London, Ont. Schmalz is delighted that his art will be displayed in both locations and available to young people.
“Christian sculpture . . . focuses on Christianity and celebrating the Catholic heritage. In a sense my mission is to put a face on Catholicism that is intriuguing and powerful and that will bring more people to value this cultural force in our society today,” he said.
He calls his Jesus the Homeless sculptures “bronze preachers.” He wants them installed in as many locations as possible in Canada and globally so that its message can be shared universally.
“I’ve been doing Christian sculpture for more than 23 years and what I believe is that artwork is very, very powerful,” said Schmalz because it has the power “to inspire, to help people meditate and also to raise up issues.”
The issue of poverty is a primary concern at Regis and is why the school welcomed Jesus the Homeless.
“So many people at Regis, on the faculty at Regis, are involved with caring for the poor in one way or another. It fits our whole theological orientation. Our orientation is toward justice,” said Fr. Peter Larisey, who teaches religion and art at the college. “It gave a visual image or icon of what are the general feelings in the college.”
In Christian art, there has been a history of depicting the suffering Christ, said Larisey. “The homeless person for us represents Christ, whom we should be caring for and loving.”
Schmalz, who appreciates the Asian culture of Beijing, is inspired by the pride of the people towards their culture and by their willingness to express that pride by building 50-foot Buddhas all over China.
“I would like to bring that zest . . . that enthusiasm over to us, (to) our religion. That’s very exciting for me,” he said.
The sculpture is located at 100 Wellesley Street, at the corner of Queens Park Crescent.