Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz has unveiled his latest work, Mary, Untier of Knots, in time for Pope Francis’ visit to Canada later this month. Schmalz is perhaps best known for his sculptures Homeless Jesus and Angels Unawares. (Courtesy of Timothy Schmalz)

Schmalz unveils hope for historic visit

By 
  • June 30, 2022

Originally, Timothy Schmalz did not intend his latest creation, Mary, Untier of Knots, to be his artistic muse to symbolically represent the ongoing truth and reconciliation efforts in Canada. 

That, he thought, was a sculpture entitled Residential School that he sculpted nearly a year ago. The 14-desk rendering is of a traditional residential school classroom with a little girl sitting at one of the desks with the side of her head pressed into the desk, signifying the solitary and sorrowful experience many Indigenous students internalized while attending these institutions. She carries a feather in her hand, symbolizing her ancestry and culture.

While he appreciated the opportunity to construct this “haunting piece,” Schmalz said a more hopeful sculpture was befitting of this historic occasion.

“I wanted it to be equally about Pope Francis, as well as the reason why he is coming here,” said Schmalz. “Believe it or not, nothing suited this event or moment more than his devotion to Mary, Untier of Knots. I felt that was absolutely fantastic because there you have his favourite devotion of Mary being put into action and he is in action.”

The St. Jacob’s, Ont., artist is perhaps best known for his Homeless Jesus and Angels Unawares, both of which are on display in Rome and other locales around the world. He recently finalized the sculpture he was commissioned to create for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Canada later this month (the Pope will visit Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqualuit and is expected to apologize for the Church’s role in past wrongs done to Canada’s Indigenous peoples). Details are yet to be finalized about how his work will be unveiled during the Alberta leg of the papal visit. 

Mary, Untier of Knots (or Mary Undoer of Knots), a tribute to the Baroque painting and Marian devotion, will have a permanent home afterwards at the Skaro Shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, an hour northeast of Edmonton.

Schmalz shared his thoughts about how he hopes Canada’s Indigenous communities receive his work. 

“This sculpture is approaching the problems of the world historically and today face-to-face. The first thing we must do is recognize these problems. To have the sculpture of the world wrapped up in knots is a visual acknowledgement through symbolism. The residential school past can be interpreted as a knot,” he said.

“But it is surrounded by hope too. The world is tangled up in knots, but you have two angels and the symbolism of Catholicism in a sense, Mary, with a brooding face trying to remove these problems. The Indigenous problem is here. This sculpture boldly faces it. It’s not cookies and cream. It’s not sugar coated. It puts it front and centre.”

Schmalz’s latest work actually features knotted ribbons that can be untied. The plan is for Pope Francis to untie one of these knots as he appears with the statue. When it is on display at Skaro, visitors can come to this holy site and interactively untie a knot themselves as a prayer for God to heal the world and to ease the burden and strife in that individual’s life. 

The ribbon streams out of the globe and hands of the two angels — Tobias and Raphael — bowing down to Mary, the Mother of God. A dove, a symbol of peace, appears over the halo of Mary to signify the Holy Spirit. A serpent is also shown being crushed beneath her feet. Schmalz chose the globe as he knows Pope Francis views unity and peace as a key global mission.

One of the most striking features of Schmalz’s work is the resolute facial expression of Mary as she works to undo a knot, which is clay in this case. 

“Unlike many of the Mary statues and artistic works throughout the century, she doesn’t have that photo-ready smile,” said Schmalz. “There is a tension there. She is intent on removing these knots. When I was working on this piece I did not want a syrupy, smiley Mary. I wanted feminine, but also involved and concerned. The look on her face shows she is giving an intense effort to untie these knots all around us and our globe.”

Ultimately, Schmalz would hope whenever Indigenous peoples see this sculpture they think about how Pope Francis, particularly at this time when he has trouble moving and is cancelling events due to health issues, “had the authentic concern to be here.” Also, that this trip is not “a whim” but a journey “reflecting the hard-core values of this Pope.”

Schmalz said he intends to be on hand at the unveiling, but purely as a spectator to witness history. 

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