Pope Francis recently inaugurated a new statue in Piazza San Pietro, the first new statue there in four centuries. Called Angels Unawares, it calls attention to the plight of refugees and migrants and summons us to the virtue of charity. What, I wonder, is its relation to the piazza in which it has been placed? Does it duplicate the aesthetic judgment of Bernini’s baroque piazza? Does it summon us to a similar understanding of Christian virtue? Does it advance a political agenda?

Show Notes

Today’s subject is a new statue in Piazza San Pietro, the first in about 400 years. It was inaugurated in September 2019 and is called Angels Unawares. The artist is a Canadian, Timothy Schmaltz. Its location as you face the façade is on the left hand side of the Piazza. It’s big, except that St. Peter’s makes it look small. It’s 20 feet long and weighs 3.5 tons.

The main subject of the statue is 140 immigrants of different nationalities and historical periods, including Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, Poles escaping from Soviet control, Syrian Muslims and Africans fleeing from war, an Irish boy leaving the potato famine. It also includes Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus as they flee King Herod’s wrath.

The number 140 was chosen because there are 140 saints on top of Bernini’s Colonnade.

The title comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 13, which reads: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares. It is not that the angels are unawares but that we don’t know who might be an angel, so we should act kindly to everyone.

I find the statue impressive, and it succeeds in calling attention to the desperate condition of refugees, whose numbers are staggeringly high—more than thirty million, from what I read.

As far as I can tell from internet searches, the statue is a great success for raising a timely issue in a powerful way.

So those are the basic facts. Since I’ve just been reading about Bernini’s design of the piazza and since it had remained essentially unchanged for four centuries, it seems a big step to make an substantial addition now, so I am led to wonder whether what the relationship is between the old piazza and the new statue.

Aesthetically speaking, the big bronze statue group is very different from the travertine statues of Bernini’s piazza. I see no effort to harmonize the statue’s artistic style with that of the piazza in form or material. I suspect this is because the main message of the statue is so urgent that conformity in style becomes a minor matter.

Angels Unawares, a new bronze statue in Pt. Peter’s Square (my photo)

But what about the message? Is the message of the statue the same as that of the piazza and of the Basilica to which it leads? If there is some disharmony, is that because the Church has improved or reconceived its mission?

One simple difference that I think will seem a clear improvement to everyone is that Pope Francis did not stamp his coat of arms on the statue. Alexander VII Chigi and Paul V Borghese could not resist this temptation, so high in the piazza, up with the saints, are eye-catching reminders of their powerful families. We are in a democratic age, and this simply is not done.

Coat of Arms of Pope Alexander VI on Colonnade of St. Peter’s (my photo)

A second difference is that the statue represents not the heroes and heroines of the Church but the refugees of the world. The old piazza wanted viewers to honor the saints and martyrs of a large but nonetheless particular institution, the Roman Catholic Church, then engaged in a battle with Protestantism. The new statue wants us to take action on behalf of a group without borders, an inclusive assembly representing different ethnicities and religions from all over the world. This too seems like a sign of our democratic age and of our cosmopolitanism as well.

If both statue and colonnade have 140 carved figures, this numerical identity only underscores the differences between the people they represent and the duties we owe them: saints and martyrs are above, refugees are on the floor of the piazza. We were first called to honor or venerate; now we are called to show charity and mercy.

So far, this seems a step in the right direction, doesn’t it? A church that really believes what it preaches should call upon us to practice the Christian virtues, and if a statue representing needy and imperiled refugees in Piazza San Pietro is effective in moving us to charity, diminished aesthetic uniformity is a small price to pay for it. The attractive moral urgency captured by the statue may explain why smaller versions of it are showing up in other places, such as at US Catholic universities and at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

But I said I had questions I cannot answer. The main one is whether the statue goes beyond a call for charity and attempts to convey a broad political message as well. And if it does, is the message persuasive?

To respond fully, we would need to consider the speeches and writings of Pope Francis, some which comment directly on the statue. As for the statue itself, it represents a crowded boatload of refugees who need help, which is a clear allusion to the contemporary debate about how best to respond to the flood of refugees in motion on several seas and continents. Does it wish merely to point out the problem or go beyond this and offer support to a particular view of the policies best suited to solving this humanitarian crisis?

When considered apart from the pope’s words, the statue is restrained. It calls attention to a grave problem that cannot be denied, and I can’t see that it advances a solution. The wide variety of refugees it includes suggests a wide variety of different causes for their suffering, which in turn would call for different responses. The point shared in common by all cases is that we need to care.

As for concrete political solutions, isn’t the New Testament even more restrained? It clearly calls us to Christianity and conveys the promise of a Heavenly Kingdom, but its political guidance is limited and hard to interpret. More than a few passages speak of charity and mercy, but I can’t think of any that gives advice about how to solve humanitarian crises.

An opposed reading of the Angels Unawares statue would say that it is linked to a particular way of thinking about the causes and best solutions to the refugee crisis, ones which Pope Francis’s words elaborate more fully. In this case, the statue’s principal novelty would not be its artistic style or its focus on the suffering of refugees of all beliefs; it would be the suggestion that the pope’s understanding of the Christian virtues offers a practical solution to one or more of the world’s heartbreaking political problems.

Whether and how the Christian virtues improve our political lives are wonderful questions and ones which helps to distinguish the Ancient, Christian, and Modern Romans from one another.

Certainly the Ancient Romans would have laughed at the suggestion that mercy and charity are politically useful qualities, though they’d agree it’s great if your enemies possess them, and it is to these Romans that we return in our next episode. Our challenge will then be to assess the morality of the blood sports they staged in the Colosseum, if “morality” is a permissible word in this context.

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