It's art made just for the pope's visit to Philly. But for the artists and the city, it's much more.
How a work of art is encouraging an entire community to discover what unites them.
Pope Francis is making his first trip to the U.S. this month, with stops in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia.
Pope Francis has a packed schedule for his Sept. 22-27 visit. In addition to leading four Masses, the pontiff will stop at the White House, tour the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, visit a Pennsylvania prison, attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and undoubtedly take part in thousands of selfies.
Millions are expected to greet him, so some of Philadelphia's best artists have been working nonstop for his arrival.
Meg Saligman, Dan Ostrov, and Stephanie Cole have been working overtime on their piece, "Knot Grotto," a 20-by-13-foot wooden sculpture built exclusively for Pope Francis' visit to the City of Brotherly Love.
Saligman was commissioned by Sister Mary Scullion and the Mercy and Justice Initiative, an arm of Project HOME, one of the most successful outreach programs for people experiencing homelessness. As a woman of faith and Philadelphia luminary, Scullion hopes this papal visit will bring the community together.
"We're hoping that people are moved to acknowledge a higher power and to also acknowledge the power within ourselves to act," Scullion told the New York Times.
"Knot Grotto" was inspired by one of Pope Francis' favorite paintings, "Mary Untier of Knots."
The Johann Georg Schmidtner painting depicts Mary, surrounded by angels, untying knots to form a long strip.
The knots symbolize struggles or dilemmas with unclear solutions. The devotional to the Holy Mother became one of Pope Francis' favorites after he completed his doctoral studies in Germany, where the prayer is particularly common.
As Saligman told ABC6 of their inspiration, "Our contemporary interpretation of this tradition is the knotted grotto of Mary clearing pathways for people to help them with their struggle."
Many hands make light work, and many more hands are bringing "Knot Grotto" to life.
For the past six weeks, a full team of artists, assistants, and architectural consultants have been hard at work constructing the piece. From computer sketches, bracing, sanding, and everything in between, getting the grotto off the ground was truly a team effort.
Saligman brought Ostrov and Cole (partners in art and in life) to lead the design and construction of the larger-than-life installation.
Constructed of ash and mahogany pieces made pliable in a steam chamber, the grotto is large enough for visitors to walk inside, where they'll be surrounded by dynamic curves and light.
"We've had to resort to some crazy measures to make this happen, but by God we're gonna do it," Cole told Upworthy.
More than beautiful, the piece is meant to unite people through their common struggles.
Visitors to the sculpture write down their challenges, wishes, hopes, and prayers, then tie them onto the grotto. All summer long, Saligman has been collecting knots by mail and at pop-up events in Philadelphia.
Tens of thousands have already been submitted, and more are expected to arrive ahead of Pope Francis' Mass in Philadelphia on Sept. 26.
Come join us outside of the Free Library! #weaving #Philadelphia #FrancisFund #PopeFrancis #MercyandJustice #ProjectHome #untietheknots
A photo posted by Meg Saligman (@megamural) on
The wishes, prayers, and struggles are diverse. Some are prayers for help with addiction; others struggle with student loans, or simply pray to be good parents.
"The fabric [knots] will come up through the middle ... so it will almost be like the struggles are ascending to heaven," Ostrov told Upworthy.
Leaving prayers in the knotted grotto is just one part of Project HOME's three-part mission for the papal visit. The Mercy and Justice initiative is also encouraging visitors to contribute to The Francis Fund, a group of faith-based and non-religious organizations assisting people experiencing poverty and homelessness in the Philadelphia area, and to reach out to their elected officials to advocate legislation that encourages mercy and justice.
With nearly 2 million people descending on the city, the installation will serve as a peaceful place for fellowship.
With throngs of pilgrims and spectators expected in Philadelphia, Ostov hopes the grotto, on display now outside the The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul — the church where Pope Francis is leading Mass — will serve as a sanctuary in the crowded scene.
"I'm kind of imagining this quiet area within this mass of people, and people would start reading the struggles ... and they have this moment of kinship."
Cole agreed, adding, "I think the general hope is that this will really bring more synergy to the city."
No matter what they're praying for or struggling with, Scullion hopes the papal visit will serve to unite people of all faiths and walks of life. As she told the New York Times, "We need God's grace to untie the knots, but we also need each other."
Every frame a picture.... Come add your knot to the grotto today through September 28th @megamural @mercy_justice @artprogram_projecthome #mercyandjustice #philadelphia #popefrancisph #instasculpture #instaart #woodart #woodworking #woodsculpture #sculpture
A photo posted by Daniel Ostrov & Stephanie Cole (@steamchamber) on
The "Knot Grotto" officially opens Thursday, Sept. 3 and will remain on display outside the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul until Monday, Sept. 28.