Tim Murphy, creative director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, explains the significance of the statue of 'homeless Jesus' which was just unveiled at the Baltimore Basilica. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)
Living in small-town Canada, Timothy P. Schmalz is usually sheltered from the societal ills that plague many major cities. So when he visited inner-city Toronto and happened on a homeless person sleeping on a park bench five years ago, the sight left him shaken.
It also inspired him.
Schmalz, a Christian artist, saw the figure under the blanket as the presence of Jesus. He sculpted the scene in bronze, giving the figure wounds on both feet. Replicas of his statue are now on display — and generating reaction and comment— in historic settings in more than 60 cities, including Indianapolis; Dublin, Ireland; and Rome, where it stands on the grounds of the Vatican.
Baltimore is getting its own version of "Homeless Jesus" on Ash Wednesday when Archbishop William E. Lori unveils and blesses the life-sized wood-and-resin statue at a 12:10 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The Baltimore Archdiocese will make the statue available for churches and schools in the area to borrow throughout Lent — the 40-day period of prayer and fasting many Christians observe before Easter — and beyond.
Once every site that wants to borrow this version of "Homeless Jesus" has had the chance to do so, the archdiocese will return it to Schmalz, who will supply a full-fledged bronze model for permanent display on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Churchin downtown Baltimore.
The full-sized permanent work measures about 8 feet in length and features a frail-looking individual asleep on a park bench, the face and body covered by a blanket, bare feet protruding.
A space remains on the bench where visitors may sit.
Only the wounds on the figure's feet establish an overt link to Jesus, but they're enough to attract passers-by and inspire discussion.
Newspaper articles from around the world describe individuals stopping at the statue and debating its meaning. Some deride it as an unwanted magnet for homeless people or an unflattering depiction of Jesus. Others call it a powerful evocation of his frequent reminders to followers that they should help the poor, the hungry and the disenfranchised.
Schmaltz himself said he sees it as conjuring Matthew 25, a gospel passage in which Jesus declares that whatever we do to "the least of these," we do to him.
Lori said the statue hits the mark in that respect.
"I think the piece does what the artist intended, which is to stop you in your tracks, to make you recognize a very human reality in our city," he said. "I also think that it makes you open your eyes when you actually are out and about in the city and you see flesh-and-blood homeless people in the streets.
"It helps us to remind us that in welcoming the poor, the sick, the homeless, the immigrant — that in welcoming them we welcome Jesus."
Archdiocese officials declined to disclose the price of the bronze statue, but versions of "Homeless Jesus" on display in other cities have cost as much as $40,000. An anonymous donor purchased the permanent statue on behalf of the archdiocese.
Schmalz said the archdiocese was his first customer to ask for a "portable" version to share in a variety of places.
The artist donated the wood-and-resin "pilgrim" model that Baltimoreans will be able to see at least through the fall.
"I love the idea that Baltimore is doing this: 'Let's get this park bench into different areas around the city," he said.
A lifelong Catholic, Schmalz, 47, of tiny St. Jacobs, Ontario, has been creating works of public art for three decades, most of it Christian-themed.
He showed up on the Vatican's radar when he was in his 30s after a sculpture he made of the Holy Family appeared in more than 40 states. A handful of American bishops brought the work to the attention of Pope John Paul II, who blessed it shortly before he died in 2005. The Vatican commissioned five more of Schmalz's works over the next eight years.
The original "Homeless Jesus" was rejected by two high-profile cathedrals, St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and sat in storage for a year.
After the faculty of Regis College at the University of Toronto displayed it in 2013, however, it quickly caught the public interest.
Later that year, Pope Francis blessed the sculpture at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City as Schmalz looked on.
The media attention created a worldwide market. Schmalz has created sculptures now on display at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, which dates to the 11th century; at Singapore's oldestRoman Catholic church, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd; and in front of historic St. Ann's Church in Manchester, England.
He's preparing more for installation in Budapest, Moscow and other cities.
The "pilgrim" version now in Baltimore will be available for use by any institution within the archdiocese, and "we are open to lending it to any public or religious organization or church that may wish to display it," said Sean Caine, an archdiocese spokesman.
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Caine said he expects the permanent sculpture to be in place at St. Vincent de Paul — where dozens of homeless people typically camp — by the end of the year.
Schmalz said the work is by far the most popular he has created, perhaps because it offers a view of Jesus unlike the "ornamental Jesus" with the "perfect hair, teeth and abs" so often seen in Western art.
Perhaps, he said, a world in need better resonates with a Jesus who embodies the "hard-core truths."
"'Love your enemy.' 'Take all you have and give it to the poor.' These are the most difficult things in the world to do, but they're what we're asked to do," he said. "It might be the most challenging invitation of all: to see all human life as sacred."