The clay model of a Nativity scene reflects a welcoming Church, says the artist. Photos courtesy Timothy Schmalz

Making art fit the universal Church

  • June 25, 2020

Catholic artist Timothy Schmalz knows his Church is a universal one, welcoming to all. It’s just not something you might easily recognize with the traditional art forms that celebrate the faith.

Many people will view the great works of artists gone by that adorn churches around the world, yet many will never see someone like themselves mirrored in this art. Instead, the image they will see is Jesus or Mary, the saints or the Holy Family, a European representation of a worldwide Church, said Schmalz.

The prolific artist from St. Jacob’s, Ont., is trying to mix things up a bit with his latest series of biblical portrayals. Since the beginning of the year he’s been working on several sculptures that depict the African reality of the faith to make it more appealing and visually more welcoming.

“It would be a visual reminder that one of the amazing things about the Catholic Church is that it’s a universal Church, it’s for everyone,” said Schmalz, whose work is in churches around the world and is perhaps best known for his bronze Homeless Jesus.

He recently finished a Tanzanian Jesus corpus that has just arrived in that country, though it hasn’t been installed yet, as well as an African nativity. There is no mistaking that Jesus and the Holy Family depicted in these pieces are African. These follow up on a crucifix Schmalz created for the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2018 that relied upon African-American men as models. It has been installed in an outdoor prayer space.

Schmalz’s past art — and he makes no apologies for — has many Eurocentric depictions of the Bible. But he sees there is opportunity to be more welcoming to many other lived realities.

“What I realize is it’s not enough to just welcome people into the Church. We need to create a visual welcoming for people,” he said.

“If you are a minority and you’re walking into a church and you see nothing, nothing that looks anything like you, what is that message saying about Christianity?”

You can also see this diversity in the Church in Schmalz’s Angels Unaware, installed in St. Peter’s Square in Rome to commemorate the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2019. It’s almost an outlier in a square surrounded by art created in the 1600s, and “the history almost became an obstacle for that visual welcoming” he was trying to portray in the piece with its 140 figures representing a world mosaic. It’s meant to portray the sentiment in Hebrew 13:2 where the sacred is to be found in the stranger.

It’s more coincidence than on purpose this project is underway during the inflamed racial tensions in the United States and protests that have spread to Canada for racial justice after the death of Floyd George at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“It just confirmed the idea that I had to start out this project,” said Schmalz. “I want to reflect Catholicism authentically. And by doing that, ironically, it’s creating a Jesus that’s black. That’s more authentic.”

Schmalz doesn’t believe the Church is in any way intentionally being unwelcoming to those outside the Eurocentric world. But it’s a fact, something some African priests have noted in the wake of the George protests. Fr. Obinna Ifeanyi told The Register’s Michael Swan African missionaries here “are not received the way we received the missionaries when they came (to Africa).” And Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who previously ministered in the Peterborough, Ont., diocese, noted a “pattern of stereotype, the pattern of bias, the pattern of treating African priests differently than they would white priests.” Such sentiments confirm Schmalz’s belief the Church has work to do in being more welcoming to the stranger.

As a sculptor, he cringes at the sight of monuments being torn down during these tumultuous times, like those of historical Confederate leaders in the U.S. south. 

“That incident made me realize how important visual images, especially sculptures, are for the world and for people’s psyche in a sense. It becomes so symbolic that by removing one it comes layered with deep symbols and power and philosophy.”

It also gets Schmalz trying to get into the head of Jesus, and what He would want, how He would like to be sculpted.

“He would want to represented how He represented His words and that is with love and inclusivity,” he said.

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