Artist explains ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture in Davidson neighborhood
Friday, Mar. 21, 2014

Artist explains ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture in Davidson neighborhood

    A plaque identifies the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture and cites the Bible verse the artist sought to “visually translate” with the artwork, Matthew 25:40. The residential neighborhood where the sculpture is placed can be seen behind the plaque.
    The “Homeless Jesus” sculpture rests on a bench in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson. The church is in an residential neighborhood, which can be seen in the background. Though the sculpture is life-size and realistic, the nail holes in its bronze feet indicate that it is a statue of Jesus. Beside the bench, a plaque identifies Matthew 25:40 as the inspiration for Timothy Schmalz’s artwork.
    The “Homeless Jesus” sculpture, resting on a bench in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson after a night of freezing rain, is identifiable as Jesus only by the nail holes in his feet.
    The “Homeless Jesus” sculpture’s face is almost entirely obscured, as he is bundled up to protect himself from the elements just as a homeless person of today might. He sleeps on a bench in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church after one of the many frozen nights Davidson has experienced recently.
    In November, Pope Francis blessed the smaller model of “Homeless Jesus,” which artist Timothy Schmalz created for the Vatican. Schmalz called meeting the pope “a spiritual event.” Outside of his hotel room in Rome, a homeless person lay bundled up in blankets, just like the figure in his sculpture. He said he believed that was a sign; seeing all the homeless people in Rome “that the artwork was meant bring attention to” made him feel determined to get the sculpture out into the world.
    The “Homeless Jesus” statue rests on an icy bench in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson after a frozen night outside.

Ever since St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson installed Timothy Schmalz’s “Homeless Jesus” sculpture a few weeks ago, the work has caused controversy, even landing a spot on CNN’s religion blog (

One neighborhood resident called 911 on the sculpture, a life-size figure on a bench resembling a bundled-up homeless person with nail holes in his exposed feet.

Another resident sent a letter to the neighborhood’s homeowners association, asking that it be removed.

Some sit on the bronze bench that is part of the statue, touch the figure and pray.

Many others support the sculpture and its message. Schmalz, who’s Canadian, said several other cities also display a “Homeless Jesus” in places such as Ontario and Australia.

The Vatican is installing a version of the sculpture that Pope Francis has blessed; Schmalz went to Rome to meet the Pope for the blessing in November. He said the Pope told him the sculpture is beautiful.

Other locations in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, have expressed interest in the sculpture.

In Davidson, a St. Alban’s parishioner donated the “Homeless Jesus” statue to be permanently displayed as a visual prayer for fellow member Kate McIntyre, executive director of Downtown Davidson Inc., who died in 2007 at age 55. The purchase, shipping and installation cost $22,000.

What did Schmalz, 44, intend to communicate when he created it? How historically accurate is a portrayal of Jesus as homeless? Should Christians be offended?

Schmalz, whose work is heavily influenced by his Christian faith, said Matthew 25 is the message of the sculpture; specifically, 25:40 “is the verse that this sculpture visually translates.”

We asked Schmalz to explain more about “Homeless Jesus,” and then asked a couple of experts for their opinions:

Q: What inspired the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture? What gave you the idea for it?

A: I was walking down a busy city street and saw a human form covered with blankets in the middle of the day sleeping. His bedroom was the city. It was a haunting encounter. I instinctively thought to myself, “That is Jesus.”

Q: When you make a piece of art, what is your goal for the piece?

A: The goal for the work is similar to the purpose of a sermon. Only a sculpture is always preaching 24/7, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Q: How do you feel about the reactions your sculpture has evoked? Some people love the reminder of the less fortunate in their neighborhood, while a few want it removed. It has started quite a dialogue in Davidson.

A: Unfortunately some people believe that art should just be nice ornaments. But when Christian artwork is represented as nice ornaments, people tend to believe that the religion is likewise just some nice ornament. Christianity is raw, powerful and challenging. Jesus did not come down just to comfort people but to challenge them – “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor and follow me!” Artwork for Christianity should also challenge people.

Q: What do you think a locale’s willingness or reluctance to embrace a “Homeless Jesus” sculpture says about the area?

A: Artwork has a very interesting way of making someone see. I think someone that would hear that Jesus said, Whenever you help the marginalized, you are helping me, is different than seeing the connection Jesus wanted us so deeply to see. Jesus, if he was walking the streets today, would be sitting beside the homeless, the addicted, the broken. … Jesus today as in biblical times looked a lot more like the marginalized than the rich and political. Why shouldn’t the artwork of Jesus represent this?

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about “Homeless Jesus”?

A: One thought I had in Rome was that, of all the representations of Jesus in the history of artwork, very few show him in the way this artwork does. I think that Jesus himself, if given the choice, would prefer the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture. It shows what he tried to show in the Gospel.

The experts weigh in

Barry Sang, who has a doctorate in New Testament studies, has been a professor of religion at Catawba College in Salisbury for 29 years and is ordained in multiple denominations.

Gregory Snyder also has a doctorate and a master’s degree in divinity. He is a professor and chairman of the religion department at Davidson College.

Though neither expert had been told the artist’s inspiration for the sculpture, each immediately cited Matthew 25 to answer questions about portraying Jesus as homeless.

“I am convinced that Jesus would have actively cared for the homeless because, as Matthew 25 says, ‘Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me,’ ” said Sang. “This emphasis on care for those in need, and Jesus’ identification with them, is widely accepted as an authentic representation of the Jesus we can recover using historical tools.”

Representing Jesus in a position of solidarity with the less fortunate, then, seems historically accurate.

“… I would think that we Christians should not be provoked to anger, but rather provoked to love (by the sculpture),” said Sang.

Snyder said, “The force of the passage seems to be that Jesus comes in unexpected and lowly forms; like being born in a feed box. … Whatever else Jesus was, he was something of a prophet, and it’s a prophet’s job to rattle people’s bourgeois cage. This sculpture seems to do just that. Kudos to the artist and to St. Alban’s for sponsoring it.”

Marjorie Dana is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marjorie? Email her at

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more