Divisive ‘Homeless Jesus’ Statue Rejected by Westminster Council

A petition has attracted over 1,000 signatures.

Timothy Schmalz, Homeless Jesus, Davidson, North Carolina. Photo: courtesy Timothy Schmalz.

Homelessness may be a problem in London, but the issue is not one that UK officials are ready to confront outside their doorstep. A proposed installation of Homeless Jesus, a cast bronze statue that depicts a destitute figure huddled under a blanket on a park bench, has been scuttled by the Westminster council, reports the Guardian.

“Some iconography is very grand and glorious. This is earthy and speaks of the fragility of the human condition,” said Martyn Atkins of Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, which hoped to display the statue outside the tourist attraction, to the Guardian. “We thought it was evocative, classy and highly appropriate, especially in Westminster within spitting distance of parliament.”

The application to install the artwork, by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, was rejected by the local council because it “would fail to maintain or improve (preserve or enhance) the character or appearance of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square conservation area.”

A man from the Passage, a day center for homeless people, carries a cross past Westminster Abbey on April 10, 2009 in London. <br>Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

A man from the Passage, a day center for homeless people, carries a cross past Westminster Abbey on April 10, 2009 in London.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

This is not the first time the statue has divided popular opinion, however. When it was put on display in Davidson, North Carolina, several local homeowners called the police to complain about a homeless person sleeping on the bench.

On the other hand, Pope Francis is a self-professed fan, calling the statue a “beautiful and excellent representation of Jesus.” To date, around 100 copies of Homeless Jesus can be found around the world, from Austin to Madrid to India.

The official statement from Westminster officials also noted that the area was a “monument saturation zone” and did not meet urban planning guidelines. A city council spokesperson noted that “there is no objection whatsoever to the sculpture being located within the Methodist Central Hall itself,” but that given the large number of monuments and memorials in Parliament Square, “an exception is not warranted” to the current ban on additional public statues in the area.

Timothy Schmalz, <em>Homeless Jesus</em>. <br>Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Timothy Schmalz, Homeless Jesus.
Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

“When I heard that there’s too many monuments in the area, I just had to laugh because the size of this piece is literally a bronze park bench” that would have been installed against church wall, Schmalz told artnet News in a phone conversation.

“The reality of the situation is that they’re very uncomfortable with the message… that all human life is a sacred,” said Schmalz, arguing that this is particularly unfortunate given the statue’s proposed location between two churches. “People are supposed to acknowledge the fact that it might make one feel uncomfortable, but it’s a good thing to feel.”

The work is inspired by Matthew: 25, 31–46, in which Jesus likens himself to the hungry, the poor, and the sick, saying to his disciples that “as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”

“I imagine many people will find the council suggestion that this particular piece of public art would somehow lower the tone of the neighborhood insulting and ironic,” said Atkins. Westminster has the country’s largest population of homeless people, with a 2014 study finding more than five times as many people sleeping outdoors than anywhere else in England.

A Change.org petition to overturn the council’s decision, which has over 1,000 signatures, notes that “homelessness is an increasingly a global issue, and we are witnessing what many say is the largest ever migration of people in Europe and North Africa. London is a leading global city and the positive symbolic effect of placing ‘The Homeless Jesus’ here in Westminster would be enormous. “

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.