Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s life-sized bronze statue, Jesus the Homeless, did not have the most auspicious of beginnings. The oft-controversial piece, which depicts Jesus as an all-but-anonymous homeless person curled beneath a blanket on a park bench, spent close to a year stranded in Schmalz’s studio after it was first cast. Two Catholic cathedrals, St. Michael’s in Toronto and St. Patrick’s in New York City, passed on the sculpture after initial displays of interest, and Jesus the Homeless was left, in what Schmalz has described as a somewhat telling irony, without a home.
But much has transpired in the years since. In early 2013, the original sculpture was accepted and installed by Regis College, a Jesuit theological college located in Toronto’s downtown core. An audience with Pope Francis, in which the pontiff prayed over and blessed a model of Schmalz’s work, followed later that same year, and 2014 saw Jesus the Homeless placed in cities across the United States such as Davidson, N.C., Phoenix, Ariz., and Chicago, Ill.
The latest installation, and the first outside of North America, took place in May this year, in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. The ceremony surrounding the unveiling served as a particular source of pride for Schmalz, who travelled to Ireland to watch it take place, and for a very specific reason. “The sculpture’s doing what I never expected it to do,” he said in an interview. “It’s bringing together people from different denominations. At Christ Church Cathedral…we had the Catholic archbishop [Diarmuid Martin] of Dublin, as well as [Church of Ireland] archbishop [of Dublin, Michael Jackson] do a dual blessing on the sculpture, using the same holy water bowl.”
Schmalz is equally proud that Jesus the Homeless also appears to appeal to those who do not profess a faith in any particular religion. “I love the fact that people who aren’t really religious are gravitating toward it,” he said. “And I do believe that one of the reasons why that is, is that this sculpture is talking about the pure essence of some of the greatest gifts that Christianity has given us…that life is sacred. It’s hard not to like, whatever faith you are, the idea of Jesus saying that whenever you’ve helped the least of my brothers, you’re helping me.” Schmalz specifically points to Jesus the Homeless statues in Buffalo, N.Y., and Charleston, W.Va., that have become unofficial drop-off points for food and blankets, which are then donated to homeless shelters by the churches that own the statues.
Despite the success of the last two years, however, the controversy that has dogged the sculpture from the outset-controversy that included a Davidson, N.C. resident, mistaking it for a real homeless person, calling the police on the statue shortly after it debuted at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church-has persisted in some arenas. One parishioner at a Cincinnati, Ohio, church, citing his belief that the statue was an insulting portrayal of Jesus, left the congregation after the church’s decision to install Jesus the Homeless. Similar divides surrounding the piece have cropped up in other parishes. Schmalz expressed particular disappointment at the recent collapse of a commitment to display Jesus the Homeless at the Oratory of the Louvre in Paris. The deal soured when the oratory’s administration decided that it would be hypocritical to display a statue of Jesus as a homeless person while simultaneously trying to discourage the presence of actual homeless people on the property.
For his part, Schmalz maintains that while part of his aim is to elicit a genuine, emotional response through his work, he is not in the habit of creating pieces for the purpose of empty shocks. “It’s a visual translation of Matthew 25,” he said, “and you hope that with a little bit of explanation, [people] would come to the understanding that I’m not trying to insult anyone, and I’m only being as shocking as the gospels are shocking.”
In any case, whatever lingering resentment might be attached to the statue in some corners does not appear to have halted its forward momentum. Schmalz is currently in talks to bring Jesus the Homeless to the Methodist Central Hall in London, England, along with churches in Ottawa, Hamilton and Detroit, among others.
When asked what it meant to him to see the statue spread across the world, Schmalz said that the message of Matthew 25 remained the most important aspect, and quoted a favourite saying of his from St. Francis: “Preach everywhere you go, and if necessary even use words.”
Schmalz added: “[The statue] is very similar to a preacher who’s silent, but still being heard all the way around the world.”
Editor’s Note: A correction has been made to the story. Christ Church Cathedral is part of the Church of Ireland.