When it comes to religious art, depictions of Jesus tend to feature him as saintly, reverential, floating above mere mortals or healing them with his touch (or he’s a baby). But a sculpture by artist Timothy P. Schmalz shows Jesus as a homeless man wrapped in a blanket, asleep on a bench.
The life-size bronze work is titled, appropriately, “Homeless Jesus,” according to the artist’s website, and an edition of it has been installed in Davidson, North Carolina, by the local St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, which received the statue as a memorial for a parishioner “who loved public art,” writes NPR. Predictably, some residents are less than thrilled about the thought-provoking work — one woman called the police the first time she saw it, explaining, “I was concerned for the safety of the neighborhood.” Others have said that “Homeless Jesus” creeps them out or insults them.
On his website, Schmalz writes that the sculpture was inspired by Matthew 25 and explains the religious intention behind all of his work: “I am devoted to creating artwork that glorifies Christ. … I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers” (including against abortion). St. Alban’s rector, the Rev. David Buck, stands by “Homeless Jesus” and the message it sends, and he’s in good company: last fall Schmalz presented the wooden model for the work to Pope Francis, who prayed over and blessed it. (Do I see a candidate for the Holy See pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale?)
Other Christian organizations are interested, too: a version was placed outdoors at the University of Toronto’s Regis College last spring, and Chicago’s Catholic Charities are hoping to purchase and install a version, the Chicago Tribune reported, although the cost may prevent them. The price — $35,000 according to the Tribune, though the NC version was bought for $22,000, says NPR — apparently deterred the rectors of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York from purchasing versions of the sculpture in the past.
Naturally, critics have been quick to latch onto the price. A blogger on the conservative site Wizbang discussed “the actions of an Episcopal Church in North Carolina that wasted $22,000 on a metal statue of a ‘homeless Jesus’ to make a political statement instead of spending that money on, well, you know, the homeless.” Since the sculpture was given as a gift to the congregation, this argument doesn’t actually hold water, but it raises the interesting question of how art fits into the larger scheme of religious organizations, and at what cost. How do you value in dollars the potential inspiration of reflection and prayer?
My favorite criticism of “Homeless Jesus,” though, comes from local resident Jerry Dawson. In a letter to the editor of community site DavidsonNews.net, Dawson writes:
My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.
Clearly St. Alban’s has some work left to do.