Artist brings interior radiance to global stage in painting for World Meeting of Families

Neilson Carlin works in his studio in April

Neilson Carlin is pretty sure that he will soon have the opportunity to cross something off of his aesthetic bucket list: having the pope see one of his paintings.

"That's obviously a dream come true for someone like me, who has devoted his entire career to serving the Catholic church," said the Kennett Square, Pa.-based painter.

Anytime he has the opportunity to create art for a parish, it is a blessing, Carlin said, but he never contemplated the idea that "the Holy Father of the entire global Catholic church" would see his art. "As much as I'd hoped for it," he said, "what's the reality? I certainly didn't think that would be the case."

Pope Francis will see Carlin's work in person if, as is speculated, he attends the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, planned for Sept. 22-27, 2015. Carlin is the commissioned artist, and his painting of the Holy Family will be on view at the meeting.

But even if the meeting can't get on the pope's busy schedule, Carlin says that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput is bringing a digital version of his painting to present to Francis. "So if he hasn't seen it yet, I'm sure that very shortly he will," Carlin said.

The commission was atypical for Carlin beyond the prospect of a papal audience. Typically, he submits a portfolio, and a committee mulls it over and weighs it against that of the other artists. So when Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre called Carlin last January and asked him to discuss a project, Carlin assumed he was competing for an archdiocesan commission.

He later learned that he didn't have to compete and that 1 million people might see the work. "They had seen my work, knew my work, and stylistically, I was producing work that, I guess, they envisioned the project to take on, so they came directly to me," he said.

The commission's enormity didn't sink in for weeks, until he realized the global scope of the meeting. " 'World' is in the title, so I knew, but it started to settle in only after the fact -- how big and how visible this painting was going to be," Carlin said.

The recently unveiled painting depicts Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Sts. Anne and Joachim -- figures that McIntyre requested. Another of the archdiocese's stipulations concerned the Christ child. "They didn't want baby Jesus, nativity Jesus, and they didn't want teenaged Jesus," Carlin said. "They wanted something more of a toddler age."

Carlin also consciously included real architectural elements from Philadelphia's Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where the painting will be permanently installed. He also depicted both the papal insignia as well as that of the archdiocese.

"It wasn't just a random painting of the Holy Family, but, years from now, when someone looks at it, if they inquire and think about what are those symbols, hopefully it will bring them back to the fact [that] it's a painting done of the Holy Family, in the arch-diocese of Philadelphia, under the aegis of Pope Francis, for the World Meeting of Families," Carlin said.

Carlin used models from his parish -- who knew, he said, that they were posing as the Holy Family -- but he eschews overly realistic depictions of saints. "I don't want anyone to look at one of the figures, and the figure be so naturalistic that they could run across that person in the supermarket," he said. "I try to incorporate some element of translation of the model to make sure it looks less photographic and more of an interpretation of the model."

If Carlin can imagine seeing a painted Jesus pumping gas, it diminishes his experience. Instead, Christ should have "an incarnational aesthetic," he said. "Christ was matter and spirit perfectly, so the painting should not only have some elements of naturalism, but should have elements of idealism to make sure that it's not too naturalistic and that it's not too idealized."

The lilies in the painting, which lie on a shelf at the bottom of the work and which Joseph holds, are symbols of Mary's purity. Carlin's decision to depict the haloes as more of a peripheral glow was intentional. "For design purposes, I didn't want a big circle around their heads," he said. "I wanted more of a radiance, an interior radiance to come out."

S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., wasn't familiar previously with Carlin's work. Examining the new painting online, he notes that it borrows from Roman Catholic and Renaissance styles. It is not an icon but has an "iconic style," Plate said.

Carlin made an interesting decision that deviates from the norm of presenting Jesus looking at Mary, and Mary, qua intercessor, looking at the viewer, according to Plate. "It would have been thought odd to be looking at Jesus with Mary right there," he said, noting that Carlin's move changes "conceptions of our access to Jesus."

Carlin's painting, where the Holy Family looks at Jesus, "somewhat boldly from a historical standpoint allows the viewer to access Jesus's gaze directly. Not through Mary," Plate said. "The question is: Are we as viewers now more elevated and able to approach Jesus? Or is Jesus made more connected to us?"

Whatever the connection, Carlin counts himself fortunate to be able to create works exclusively for the church. Asked what kind of monetary rewards are implied in such work, particularly one that may be destined for papal eyes, Carlin declined to cite specific numbers. "That's always size and complexity specific," he said. "It depends on the scale and the complexity of the work. That all figures into time and expense with models and all the rest."

[Menachem Wecker is the former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. His book, Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education, co-authored with Brandon Withrow, was published this summer by Cascade Books.]

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