Timothy Schmalz’s Angels Unawares is unveiled Dec. 8 in front of the public Christmas tree put up by the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., at Grand Army Plaza. CNS photo/Ed Wilkinson

Canadian’s art stands in for Brooklyn’s Nativity

By 
  • December 18, 2020

A diocese of immigrants will be using Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s acclaimed Angels Unawares as its Nativity this year.

Schmalz’s replica of the sculpture — the original sits in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square — was unveiled Dec. 8 in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. It’s placed in front of the diocese’s public Christmas tree at Grand Army Plaza, sitting in place of the traditional Nativity creche in front of the historic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, in the middle of Brooklyn’s busiest traffic circle.

Schmalz’s work depicts a raft packed with more than 140 migrants and refugees representing the diverse waves of immigration through history. There are Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, a Polish woman running from the communist regime, a Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, an Irish boy escaping the potato famine and the Holy Family of Nazareth. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and best known as Mother Cabrini, also is depicted in the sculpture.

Schmalz added angel wings emerging from the centre that were inspired by Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

He says this 20-foot-long, 12-foot-high and 3.8-ton visual creation depicting refugees and migrants of different racial and cultural backgrounds across time is “a sign of hope” and “a signal to be compassionate to our brothers and sisters around the world.”

Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, Brooklyn’s vicar for development, said the sculpture represents a fitting tribute to DiMarzio’s 50-year ministry to migrants and refugees.

“People love to see a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus with the sheep and the animals. (But) we forget that when everything is over, the Holy Family flees as well,” said Gigantiello. “This sculpture reminds all of us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph (are) refugees, migrants, just like all of us in the boat of life together on a journey.”

In a year of COVID, and a year of racial unrest across the United States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, Schmalz believes Angels Unawares demonstrates the healing, unifying potential of art.

Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny commissioned the original work from his fellow Canuck back in 2016. Pope Francis, an enthusiastic advocate of the project since its inception, was on hand to bless the work when it was installed in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 29, 2019, the 105th World Migrant and Refugee Day. Angels Unawares was the first sculpture commissioned for installation in St. Peter’s Square after the Second Vatican Council.

Schmalz believes that by according the sculpture a permanent place in the historic plaza signifies the Catholic Church’s commitment to be a force to inspire good and unity in contemporary times. Depicting the image of a young African child slave and his father standing next to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph — refugees who fled to Bethlehem — illustrates this viewpoint.

Those who’ve seen the work remark on how Schmalz captured each migrant and refugee’s states of mind and emotion through their facial depictions. He depicts anguish and fear in some, but joy and yearning in others. Schmalz said he achieved the incredible level of detail by inviting refugees and migrants to his studio and tapping into his network to attain photos of refugees from different generations.

Attention for Angels Unawares has renewed in the past several months with replicas being accorded temporary homes leading up to an upcoming planned national U.S. tour with stops in Boston, Atlanta and San Antonio among others, before returning to its permanent U.S. home, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

(With files from Catholic News Service)

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