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Angels unaware

Can art + beauty save the world?

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Tearfund's Michael Laverty reflects on the role of the artist and the power of the arts as a tool for transformation of society and individuals.

I am always profoundly moved by the role of the artist and the power of the arts as a tool for transformation of society and individuals.

My wife Kathy and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Italy, where we were able to attend the Venice Arts Biennial and enjoy the extraordinary architecture and sites of the ancient city of Rome.

One of the most confronting and beautiful moments of our time away was to walk around and study ‘Angels Unawares’, a bronze life-size sculpture that depicts a group of migrants and refugees from different cultural and racial backgrounds and from diverse historic periods of time. They stand together, shoulder to shoulder, huddled on a raft.

Within this diverse crowd of people, angel wings emerge from the centre, suggesting the presence of the sacred among them.

The inspiration of the work arises from a passage from Hebrew 13:2 found in the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”.

Angels unaware
The sculpture 'Angels Unaware' Source:

The twenty-foot sculpture is placed in the piazza at St Peter’s Basilica and was unveiled during mass on the 105 World day of Migrant and Refugees by Pope Francis.

In his own words, the artist describes his sculptures as being ‘visual prayers’. I love that.

Polish actress Helena Modjeska said this about the Arts. “Whether it is the beautiful that brings to our hearts the love of truth and justice, or whether it is truth that teaches us how to find the beautiful in nature and how to love it, in either case art does a noble work.”

It drags out the soul from its everyday shell and brings it under the spell of its own mysterious and wonderful power, so that a memory of this experience stays with the people, sustains them in their daily labours, and refines their minds.”

As we seek to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God, we would be wise to make space to allow beauty to enter our souls and keep us tender. Perhaps we need a fresh emphasis on the arts, aesthetics and the beautiful life and allow ourselves to be moved and ‘sustained in our daily labours’. Whether that’s through listening to beautiful music, reading a good novel, visiting our national art gallery or just going for a walk and appreciating the beauty of God’s creation around us.

Perhaps we need to be intentional, daily, in practicing our appreciation for beauty.

As Dostoevsky said: “Beauty will save the world”.

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Michael Laverty is Tearfund's Strategic Partnership Coordinator. He has been the Managing Director of Tropfest and the director of SPARC, a community of Christian creative artists and thinkers.