Religious art lovers now have another reason to flock to north campus. A recently installed eight-foot bronze sculpture of St. Thomas Aquinas looms large outside of the Iversen Center for Faith. The university commissioned world-renowned Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz to design this 900-pound piece of vibrant art, which is the first permanent bronze sculpture on campus of the university’s namesake.
College of Arts and Sciences Art History Professor and Department Chair Victoria Young, who was on site during the Jan. 5 installation, said, “This sculpture of our patron saint, designed by one of the most significant religious artists in the world, reveals the university’s commitment to the power of art to convey and express spirituality.”
The 51-year-old Schmalz, dubbed a “modern-day Michelangelo” by the National Catholic Register, is well known for “Angels Unawares” representing hundreds of migrants from various cultures. Installed in 2019 in St. Peter’s Square, it is the Vatican City’s first new sculpture addition in more than 400 years. Schmalz also earned international acclaim for his 2013 creation of “Homeless Jesus,” a depiction of a blanket-wrapped Christ asleep on a park bench. It has traveled to more than 100 countries.
Schmalz anticipates that the sculpture of Aquinas will turn heads. For the sculptor, who describes his works as “visual translations of the Bible,” there is a unique affinity for Aquinas. One of his first commissions, when he was 19, was of the university’s patron saint.
Of the university’s Aquinas sculpture, Schmalz said, “I wanted to capture people’s imaginations. I didn’t want to create for this amazing space something that people will pass on by. I wanted people to look at it. It’s very impressionistic and very bold.”
The sculpture features an animated figure of the saint holding the Summa Theologiae, his best-known work, as the wind carries its pages toward the sky as they transform into a dove flying off to heaven. At the base of the sculpture is a bust of Aristotle and Greek Ionic columns, giving visual recognition to the foundation to show Aquinas’ connection to Greek philosophers and range of his theology. (See photo gallery below.)
“My hope is that people see the hardcore Aquinas and they realize that our Catholic faith is something that’s hardcore,” Schmalz said in a virtual conversation with Young at the annual Christmas celebration in December 2020. “St. Thomas Aquinas, in his life and in his work, really shows that.”
This newest addition in the transformation of the upper quad was installed in three hours under the careful watch of the university’s facilities team, after a month of site preparation with consultants from Metro and Opus Design Build.
The Aquinas sculpture stands on O’Neill Terrace facing the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, so that as people emerge they are greeted by the saint, said Young, who added that the sculpture “has such energy and intensity.”
Schmalz prefers for his art to be installed outside to draw attention and glorify Christ. “Art galleries have the opposite effect that they are intended for. They put the artwork in a tomb or make it difficult to access and experience,” he said.
Schmalz said he pulled from his understanding of the theologian and wanted to make the sculpture “approachable, interesting and exciting.” He also described it as raw, heavy and bold.
“I hope people will see the power and see the intensity and that will rub off on what they think of Catholic education and St. Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians and Christian philosophers, and that it is exciting,” Schmalz said. “If that piece becomes an introduction to that world, I am happy.”
After the installation was complete, Young sent Schmalz a photo. His reply was quick, but powerful: “AWESOME,” Schmalz said.
Students and art lovers alike just may feel the same.