Timothy P. Schmalz, “Angels Unaware” (2019) (all images courtesy the artist)

A new monument in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome, Italy, honors migrants and refugees from around the world. Pope Francis unveiled the sculpture during mass on Sunday, September 29, on the event of the 105th annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

“Angels Unaware” by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz depicts a refugee boat carrying 140 migrants. The number is not arbitrary: It is the same number of Saint statues on the Colonnades of St. Peter’s Square. “Most of the Saints around St. Peter’s Square suffered immense struggles, likewise the figures in the boat,” Schmalz told Hyperallergic in a phone interview.

The group of figures in Schmalz’s sculpture is eclectic: a Jewish man escaping Nazi Germany; a Polish pregnant woman fleeing communism; a Cherokee man moving on the Trail of Tears; a Syrian boy fleeing the civil war in his country, and more. “The idea of the sculpture is to show that we have all come from another place,” said Schmalz. “The boat is a symbol of the journey of people from all historic periods, all races, and religions.”

The sculpture includes: a Jew escaping Nazi Germany; an Irish escaping the potato famine; and a Cherokee Indian moving on the Trail of Tears, among others.

Schmalz is best known for his work “Homeless Jesus,” editions of which can be found in several cities around the world including New York, Toronto, Dublin, and Rome. “Angels Unaware” was commissioned by the Vatican’s Office of Migrants and Refugees. The work was personally approved by Pope Francis, who even blessed a maquette of the sculpture.

The center figure in the boat is an angel, seen only by its wings. That detail, according to Schmalz, is inspired by the Bible passage Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...