The District has joined a growing number of places across the country in making space for “Homeless Jesus,” a seven-foot-long bronze sculpture of Christianity’s central figure shrouded in a blanket and lying on a park bench, identifiable only by the crucifixion wounds on his feet.
The work was created by Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz.
To commemorate Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, blessed the sculpture installed on a sidewalk outside the Catholic Charities headquarters in downtown Washington. The city is once again experiencing a record number of homeless families seeking winter shelter. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the six-week period leading up to Easter during which Christians are called to reflect and atone for their sins.
Schmalz, who is Catholic, sculpts in the small town of St. Jacobs, outside Toronto. He estimates that he has made 30 of the sculptures, selling them for about $32,000 apiece. The first was installed at the University of Toronto two years ago. Since then, the statues have popped up on private property in cities across the United States, including Denver, Phoenix and Chicago. The statues are usually financed by an anonymous private donor, as was the case for the D.C. sculpture.
Schmalz spoke with The Washington Post about his vision for “Homeless Jesus” and what he hopes the sculpture will represent to the public. The interview has been edited for length.
Your sculpture has popped up in cities across the nation. Why does D.C. matter?
When a sculpture goes in Washington, it goes across the country symbolically. There are lot of decisions within that city, so to have a representation of the most marginalized and of the teachings of Jesus is very powerful. To have the sculpture in many places is an eternal reminder that all life is sacred.
Do you have any expectations for the sculpture’s presence in D.C.?
I hope [President] Obama will go over and take a look at it to acknowledge the message. If he acknowledges the sculpture, he’ll acknowledge what goes on unacknowledged in our culture. The sculpture is giving visibility to things that are invisible in our culture and city streets. Hopefully this sculpture brings visible awareness. North America is experiencing frigid temperatures, so it’s a good reminder to recognize some people don’t have a warm home to go home to.
What kind of reaction do people have to the sculpture?
The eureka moment is that when they see the statue, they see it’s Jesus. It’s unlike any other sculpture in D.C. It’s meant to merge with the environment. It’s not . . . on a pedestal or made with granite. It’s right on the street. Hopefully, people think it’s a real homeless person. I hope that when people encounter the sculpture, it will remind people of the gift that Christianity has given civilization: the idea that all humanity is sacred.
Have you had any backlash?
One of the best criticisms about the piece I’ve had was, “Oh, great, now when I see a homeless person, I’ll think of this sculpture.” That’s the best compliment I could get.
The sculpture was blessed [in 2013] by Pope Francis, who reached out and touched the sculpture. He told me it was an amazing representation of Jesus. The Vatican has decided to put it at the avenue that leads up to Vatican.
How did you come up with the idea to sculpt Jesus as a homeless person?
I was walking the streets of Toronto, and I witnessed a man or a woman, I’m not sure which, covered and on the street. I was moved and shocked. I considered that I had just witnessed Jesus. Initially, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted the piece I made. I said at the time, “Jesus has no home, how ironic.”
Where else will the sculpture be placed?
Soon it’ll be in Austin and in an Episcopal cathedral in Buffalo. It was going to go to Trafalgar Square in London until people involved realized real homeless people aren’t allowed to sleep in Trafalgar Square, so why should Jesus? In North Carolina, someone called the cops because they thought it was a real person. In Ireland, it was a Protestant church in Dublin that decided to give the homeless Jesus a home. It’s perhaps . . . better received by Protestants than Catholics, but it’s bringing different denominations together. As the world becomes more global, I think people are seeing Christians as Christians, focusing on what they have in common. The great news is, an Episcopal patron flew up to my studio in Canada and said that he would financially help place the statues in places outside of America.
How does the piece stand out from other pieces on Jesus?
Rome has more representations of Jesus probably more than any [city] in the world, but what would Jesus sculpt? He would be more concerned that his message was revealed. It’s a visual translation of how Jesus would want us to see him. They’re used to seeing his face as an ornament. If you’re going to be true to your faith, you have to be true to showing it. It’s a visual ambassador of the Christian religion that constantly expresses to us that we need to show love to our brother and sister. This visual representation at the nation’s capital, this homeless figure in this cold weather, will be seen by the decision-makers of the world.