PROSPECT PARK — It’s crowded on the deck of this boat — 140 souls with not much in common except for their humanity and that they are all refugees.
But these characters aren’t contemporaries of each other — a Muslim fleeing modern-day war-torn Syria, a European Jew trying to escape the Holocaust of World War II, and a German Catholic running from religious persecution in the 16th Century.
But look closer into the crowd. Notice the man with a toolbox? That’s St. Joseph; with him are his wife, Mary, and the boy, Jesus.
“Angels Unawares” is a 20-foot-long, three-and-a-half-ton bronze sculpture depicting immigrants and refugees throughout human history, from ancient times up to today. The Vatican commissioned this work by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz.
A duplicate rendering is touring the U.S., with a stop in Brooklyn to serve as the Nativity scene for the Diocese of Brooklyn in Grand Army Plaza of Prospect Park. Its unveiling is set for early Tuesday evening, Dec. 8, along with the annual Christmas tree lighting, also in the plaza.
“It’s an appropriate Nativity scene,” Schmalz said in an interview on Dec. 7 from his Toronto studio. “The Holy family is embedded within people from around the world, sharing the same experience about having no place at the inn.
“Christmas is absolutely a time where we should think about loving our neighbors. This sculpture is filled with our neighbors.”
Included is an angel of God. The spiritual being is hard to see, being surrounded by the other characters. But its presence is given away by a set of wings above the group, dramatically reaching toward Heaven.
This feature helps define the sculpture’s title, which is taken from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
The omnipresence of Father God, and his unfathomable love for humanity, is a theme that reappears in Schmalz’s sculptures.
His 2013 bronze, “Homeless Jesus,” is a figure shroud in a blanket sleeping on a bench. The person is unidentifiable except for the uncovered feet showing wounds caused by nails.
Schmalz’s Dec. 7 studio interview was conducted by video messaging with The Tablet and Currents News.
The artist gave a brief tour, sharing his latest work in progress, “Let the Oppressed Go Free.” It is a statement about the age-old scourge of human trafficking.
In this piece, multiple figures of all ages and genders emerge from a trap door in the Earth. The trap is held open by St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave from Sudan in the mid-to-late 1800s, who became a nun in Italy and patron saint of human trafficking and slavery.
Schmalz called himself an “artistic soldier” for Pope Francis. He described how the Holy Father famously reminded Catholics at Christmastime a few years ago that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were themselves refugees as they fled to Egypt from King Herod. That made him think of Hebrews 13:2, and the three-ton sculpture was conceived.
In his column this week, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote that “In many ways, Mr. Schmalz is just as good a theologian as he is a sculptor.”
The bishop also wrote that the diocese is honored to host “Angels Unawares” on its U.S. tour.
“The Diocese was offered the opportunity to showcase the statue here in Brooklyn because we truly are a diocese of immigrants,” Bishop DiMarzio wrote.
Indeed, Schmalz did a lot of research for “Angels Unawares” in the Ellis Island photo archives. People in those images became models for some of the characters in the sculpture.
He also relied on family photos, like the picture shared by Cardinal Michael Czerny, a fellow Canadian, who is the Vatican’s undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees. The image is of his grandparents, who fled Communism from their native Czechoslovakia.
Or, Schmalz added, he would have actual refugees from Africa pose in the studio.
“It made me, as a sculptor, have a very emotional experience,” he recalled. “One of the most haunting figures is right on the front, the Muslim woman; most of her head is obscured with her garb, but you could see her eyes coming out.”
Of course, there are no photos from the 16th century, but Schmalz found a solution to model his persecuted Catholic in Germany.
“I used etchings (from) cool woodcuts that were done during the period,” he explained. “So in all cases, I had a photograph, or an etching in my hand, or an actual person in my studio that I could sculpt and work from. And it became very, very much an exciting process and a real process for me.”
Schmalz said the characters and their plights depict the “hardcore” nature of the Gospel, which makes no secret of human suffering, yet offers the hope of a loving creator.
“You can see throughout the piece, despair, sadness, but also joy and hope,” Schmalz said. “I believe it will resonate, especially this year when you have so many displaced people (and) a pandemic that is taking the least of our brothers and sisters and smashing them and grinding them deeper into the ground.
“Well, this sculpture puts it in context, and I don’t think one can look at this Nativity set without being aware of the people around the world that are in need. And isn’t that what Christmas is for?”
The unveiling and Christmas Tree lighting on Dec. 8 will be 4:30-6 p.m. in Grand Army Plaza. The event is sponsored by DeSales Media Group, the parent company of The Tablet and Currents News.