ROME – Canadian sculptor Tim Schmalz made history in 2019 when his bronze statue of migrants and refugees in a boat, titled ‘Ignorant Angels’, was installed in St. Peter’s Square, the first artistic addition to this legendary space for centuries. On Sunday, a more modest but equally timely work by Schmalz, this one celebrating the unborn life, will be blessed in one of Rome’s most famous churches.
“Life Monument” depicts a Madonna with an unborn Jesus. The sculpture was donated to the Romanesque church of San Marcello al Corso, located in one of the most visited streets of the city.
“[I’m] very happy that the Eternal City has the representation of an unborn Jesus,” the artist told a handful of reporters on Friday. “It is the city with the most images of Jesus in the world, and like me said a cardinal, ‘If anything comes to Rome, it comes to the world.’ I think it’s very exciting to have a representation of the sanctity of all life here.
Schmalz called it “providential” that the installation of the statue comes just as the U.S. Supreme Court may be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade of 1973 which legalized abortion in America.
Still, Schmalz insists he wants the new statue to be an expression of the beauty of life, not a divisive political statement.
“I really believe that artwork can be used as a celebration and a persuasion,” he said. “While I was working on it, I said, ‘I don’t want to preach to the choir; I don’t want a pro-life sculpture that will offend anyone. It is a sculpture for those who are more cynical about the value, the beauty of human life.
“If I can bring that dialogue to some understanding, sculpting is a great tool,” Schmalz said.
He added that placing it in such a “sacred” place in Rome adds another layer. When the City Masterpieces were created, “abortion was not on the agenda, most didn’t even understand what was going on inside a woman’s womb. I don’t think it’s ironic that it’s only now that we have a pregnant Madonna with the depiction of Jesus as a fetus.
Schmalz has at least two other sculptures in Rome: “Homeless Jesus,” on a bench near Santo Spirito Hospital, and “Ignorant Angels” in St. Peter’s Square.
With “Life Monument” and another statue of older people that he hopes to start work on soon, he will have covered the full arc of the pro-life movement, which holds every life, at every stage, sacred.
“As a culture, we cannot change the idea that all human life is sacred,” Schmalz said. “Because when a few in our society lose our humanity, we all lose it.”
He noted that Rome has two massive architectural structures: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum. They say all roads lead to Rome, he said, but in Rome all roads lead to the Colosseum: “And what happened there? Butchery, murder. And this is the pre-Christian era. And then you have Saint-Pierre, a different world.
“I fear that if Christianity is in danger because our dominant culture defiles it, our values that are attached to Christianity will be further minimized or even forgotten,” Schmalz said. “What I see in our culture is that we say, ‘We are significant enough, we are educated enough, we don’t need Christianity.’ But what is really happening, I think, is that we are going back to our pre-pagan roots: my ancestors are German. Before the arrival of Christianity in the Germanic tribes, human sacrifice was common, so it does not take much imagination to realize that some of the destructive forces that occur in our culture resemble this religion.
“We saw it in Rome too: the most advanced civilization in the West had the Colosseum.” Society, he insisted, cannot lose the knowledge of the sanctity of life that begins with conception and continues into old age, with everyone in between.
“If art can play a role in helping society realize the importance of life, I can’t think of a better use, instead of just being art for art’s sake,” said Schmalz.
Each element of the sculpture is thought of as a representation of beauty: from Mary, from the mirror steel womb, the texture of her clothes, it all leads to this unborn baby Jesus, he said.
The image, Schmalz said, was partially inspired by French Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal representative in the United States, who, during the blessing of one of the artist’s sculptures in Washington, D.C. at the Museum of the Bible, quoted Dostoyevsky: “Beauty can save the world.”
“I thought it was a very noble idea,” Schmalz said. “But I went to my studio and kept thinking about it. If beauty can save the world, then maybe it can save the unborn too.
People, he said, are moved by what they see and as such more pro-life sculptures celebrating pregnancy can be powerfully inspiring.
“People don’t often see what’s in the womb, and if they see it, it’s usually in a postcard handed to them on the street, which they throw away. is something about the horror of [abortion]. Yet this sculpture is nothing but a celebration. And it is permanent; bronze sculptures last forever.
The sculpture placed in the Romanesque church will be blessed this Sunday by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Vatican’s pro-life office. It was given to Movement for Vita Italiano, the Italian pro-life movement, which Schmalz came into contact with with the help of the American association Heartbeat International.
He created different sizes of the same sculpture, which will be placed in Washington’s Theological College, in front of the National Shrine; in Austin, Texas; and Ireland, but Schmalz hopes other places will take it too.
Baptized Catholic but only active in the faith since he was 17, Schmalz said when he started making a pro-life sculpture he started by depicting Jesus weeping with his face in his hands, surrounded by 490 fetuses aborted. The idea was to represent God’s forgiveness “70 times seven”, which amounts to 490.
In the end, he gave up on that idea, he said, “because it’s so sad. I don’t see anyone mad at [the new statue], and I hope they will be moved in a positive way. Perhaps some hearts will be changed.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma