January 1, 2016
When you enter a church, the surroundings can speak to you as a visual prayer. It’s an unspoken communication from the house of God.
In honor of the parish’s 50th jubilee, Corpus Christi Church in Bismarck installed a new crucifix in its sanctuary this last summer to enhance the church and provide inspiration for worshipers. Tracy Kraft, parish manager, describes the parish’s objective in deciding what kind of corpus they wanted, “We wanted a crucifix that would be timeless, one that our parishioners would love and embrace today and still love many years from now. We wanted an image of Jesus that would enhance our prayer life at Corpus Christi.” The search led them to Catholic sculptor, Timothy Schmalz.
If the parish sought a crucifix to enhance its life of prayer, it turned to the right artist. Schmalz explains how his work draws inspiration directly from prayer and Scripture: “Every day, I sculpt and listen to the Gospels. I listen to the New Testament over and over again. If the Gospel is omnipresent in the studio, things will be shown to me.” He described his “principle occupation” as “study of the Gospel and Catholic heritage to find a visual representation.” The result is what he calls a visual prayer.
Schmalz also demonstrated the ability to visualize what would fit the sanctuary of Corpus Christi. Kraft says, “A committee was formed to study different styles of crucifixes at other parishes,” until they came across Schmalz’s work.
“When he came to meet with our committee and view our worship space, he immediately understood what we were looking for and helped us to design the image of Jesus that we wanted for our church,” Kraft explains. The result was a 10-foot, larger than life corpus, which “made its journey to Bismarck in a carefully padded wooden crate, and traveled via boat, plane and train.” The crucifix was installed with forklifts and dedicated on June 6.
The saturation of Schmalz’s studio with Scripture creates a prayerful environment, which flows into the work itself. “When you create a piece of Christian artwork, it is praying. It is a unique form of prayer. There is so much potential to use artwork as a form of prayer and preaching,” Schmalz says. He uses clay to convey the Gospel and his spiritual vision. He rephrases a common saying, “Preach everywhere you go and if necessary use clay!” His work serves as an example of how art can bring people into contact with the realities of our faith and move us to worship.
Kraft relates how the parish sought precisely this kind of contact with Jesus in choosing its corpus. “We wanted to portray a strong, humble, noble image of our Lord and Savior that our parishioners would be moved by.”
Schmalz likewise describes how he met this demand in sculpting the crucifix. “I just wanted to do a beautiful representation of the crucifixion. I have done countless versions of the crucifixion, but this one focused on beauty. When you look at it, you can see that this piece shows the masculine humanity of Jesus and the heaviness of his masculine features. It is beautiful, simple, and pure, enabling you to contemplate it for some time. It complements prayer and meditation.”
Thus far, the crucifix has achieved this goal. Kraft relates that “the response to our new crucifix has been overwhelming. Many of our parishioners were awestruck when they first saw it. We still see people that simply stand in the church and gaze at the image of Jesus that is hanging there. We are so grateful that our new image of Jesus is with us and becoming part of the fabric of our worship at Corpus Christi.”
Another example of Schmalz’s work in the diocese can be found at St. Therese, Church of the Little Flower in Minot. Schmalz relates that the piece, which shows the Little Flower composing her
Story of the Soul with the words ascending into a large rose, is one of his favorite works.
Internationally, his sculpture entitled “Homeless Jesus” has been causing controversy by bringing to life Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 concerning being found in the least of his brethren. It depicts Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a park bench, identified by the holes on his feet. Pope Francis blessed the original model of this statue, though some communities have rejected it as too controversial.
Speaking more broadly about the importance of his work, Schmalz related that art truly provides a bridge to the Gospel message. “Close your eyes and think of Jesus, what comes to mind is a work of art, whether it is lofty like Michelangelo’s
Pieta or a plastic piece on the mantle. Artwork is the visual ambassador to Christianity. If the ambassador looks good, they will think that what inside is valuable. I have been battling to get the most amazing Christian sculpture out to the public so that they look inside.”
The parish now has a visual ambassador of the suffering Christ. Kraft explains the importance of the parish’s new crucifix, “Having our new, beautiful crucifix in the center of our worship space helps to keep our parishioners focused and grounded in the liturgy. It is a constant reminder of what Jesus has done and continues to do for us.” The crucifix is a constant reminder, or we could say—a visual prayer.