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Chester County Press

Painting by Kennett Square artist is seen on a world stage

09/28/2015 01:38PM ● By J. Chambless

In this screen shot, Pope Francis is seen on stage in Philadelphia with Carlin's painting beside him.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

On Monday morning, after a large portion of the world saw his painting of the Holy Family on stage with Pope Francis in Philadelphia, Neilson Carlin was back in his nondescript studio space in Kennett Square, coming to terms what had just happened.

“I knew, in the abstract, that it was the World Meeting of Families, that there were a million-plus people, but it's another thing to be there, looking at my artwork on stage,” he said. “It's settling in that everyone is watching him, but my painting is on the periphery. I have no idea how many people saw it there, and on TV. I can't wrap my head around it.”

Kennett Square artist Neilson Carlin with a sketch of his portrait of the Holy Family that was seen at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

 In January 2014, Carlin was contacted by Bishop John McIntyre to paint a portrait of the Holy Family that would be the central icon for the World Meeting of Families. Since then, Carlin's world has revolved around what he called “by far the most important commission of my career. For the last year, everything has been building up to this.”

Carlin said the organizers of the World Meeting of Families gave him some guidelines initially. “The request was to show the Holy Family, with the parents of Mary, Anne and Joachim,” he said. “So there are at least five figures. And they wanted Jesus to be a toddler, not a baby, so it doesn't look like a nativity.” The grouping suggests the continuation and bonds of the family, in keeping with the theme of the world meeting, “The Family Fully Alive.”

The work was unveiled at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, and it was in place when Pope Francis celebrated Mass there on Saturday. “One of the first things he did was bless the painting,” Carlin said. “I had no idea it was going to happen.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia owns the painting and Carlin knew it would be part of the World Meeting events, but he didn't find out until last Tuesday that the painting would be on the cover of every program handed out on the Parkway. And he didn't know the painting would be on an easel just a few feet from the Pope until he arrived at the event on Sunday.

“On Friday night, my family and I stayed in the University City area,” said Carlin, who has three children, ages 5, 7 and 9. “We did a dry run on Friday night and walked down to see how long it would take on Saturday. Then we walked from 35th Street down to to the cathedral for the 10:30 Mass. Between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we walked about 16 miles, with three kids.”

On Saturday, he saw the Pope bless his artwork.

Neilson Carlin's painting of the Holy Family.

 “We went back home on Saturday night, on on Sunday we drove to the Mann Music Center, went through security screening there and were bussed directly to the Art Museum,” Carlin said. “We got there at about 8:30 on Sunday and basically waited there until the Pope got there. By about 3:00, they were encouraging everyone to get in their seats. We had seats about 50 yards away, right in front of the stage. There was an aisle front of us so we could see very well.”

There was little to do but wait once they were inside the security zone, but Carlin said he was struck by the atmosphere of peace. “Friday night and Saturday, when we were walking around, I have never been in the midst of so many cops, National Guard, Secret Service, FBI – they were all friendly. They were smiling at the kids. It was fantastic. Everyone seemed upbeat. You felt like you were in the Vatican, with the amount of collars, habits, brothers in robes. But just the general spirit was very nice.”

Carlin said his phone was signaling every couple of minutes on Saturday and Sunday as his friends sent him images of his painting on stage, or sent him congratulatory messages. “It was heartwarming to see so many friends on mine on Facebook, sharing and sharing and sharing these pictures,” he said. “People I went to high school with, family – it brought everyone out of the woodwork. They were all congratulating me. So yes, it was special,” he said.

The message that the Pope has carried to America – one of reconciliation, love, peace and compassion – struck Carlin, just as it has struck the world. “I didn't meet the Pope, but my thought was, 'Boy, I kind of hope I don't.' I mean, I'd love to meet him, but there are enough homeless people, there are enough downtrodden people for him to take an interest in. Let him spend his time with them. … You're not used to seeing public figures that take a step out of the limelight to recognize the downtrodden as often as he has done it since the day he became the Pope. That's what resonates with people.

“The World Meeting of Families and the Papal visit was not about my painting, but it played a role,” Carlin said. “Just like at the Mass, I was thinking there were all these people who played all these roles to get us there. But sitting there, we were all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are the body of Christ, and we all play our role in the thriving of the church. And we're all going to go back into the world, like the Pope said, hopefully reminded to commit small acts of kindness and generosity and compassion, to expand the love we experienced yesterday out into the world.

“So this was certainly a high point,” he said. “But it's all in service to the church.”

When the painting is returned to its place in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, it will become an object of veneration itself because of its close association with Pope Francis, and its turn in the spotlight on a world stage.

“I would think it would take a more prominent position than it did just a week ago,” Carlin said. “I think there's a whole elevation of it now. When people see it ten years from now, yes, it's an image of the Holy Family,” Carlin said, “but it also calls to mind what happened in Philadelphia in 2015 under Pope Francis.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail

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