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Icon for the World Meeting of Families: Meet the Artist, Neilson Carlin

Kathy Schiffer - published on 09/08/14

Talented convert was able to transition from his success in commercial art to specializing in sacred art.

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Icon for the World Meeting of Families Is Unveiled in Philadelphia

The official icon for the World Meeting of Families, entitled “The Holy Family,” was unveiled and blessed September 7 at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The icon, a 40” by 60” oil on canvas created by Philadelphia artist Neilson Carlin, includes Jesus’ extended family—Mary and Joseph, along with his grandparents Anna and Joachim. It will appear on the website and printed materials for the September 2015 World Meeting of Families. After the WMOF, the icon will remain on display in the Philadelphia cathedral.

At a special evening Mass at the Cathedral, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced that he would be traveling this week to Rome, where he hoped to give a copy of the icon to Pope Francis. Then on Wednesday or Thursday, September 10 or 11, the icon and the official prayer will be presented to the world at a Vatican press conference.

Neilson “Neil” Carlin, the icon’s designer, explained in a telephone interview that he created the image, not in the angular style common in Eastern icons, but as a Western-style painting. Jesus is dressed in white and is portrayed as a toddler, perhaps two years old. His hand, raised in a blessing, is the focal point at the center of the painting.  

Carlin’s icon employs what the artist describes as a “frame within a frame.” The work mimics architectural details from the Cathedral, such as the arched baldacchino and marble columns. A medallion at the top left bears the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; at the top right is the coat of arms of Pope Francis. The artist explained that he hopes people who see the work in ten years or fifty years will recognize familiar images from the cathedral, and will realize that the work was painted at the direction of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  

Carlin spoke freely about his career, about his faith, and about his conversion to Catholicism in 2000. As an infant, he had been baptized Catholic; but his family did not practice their faith. On one occasion, at the age of six or seven, he attended Mass with a family friend; but except for that single experience, Carlin had little contact with church.  Then, when he was ten, his parents renewed their Christian faith and began to attend a series of Protestant churches. As a teenager, he was confirmed as a Lutheran. In the following years, he worshiped with his family in a variety of denominations, where he developed a strong love and gratitude for Christ.

Like many young people, Carlin was not involved in a religious community during his college years. His faith in Christ had been nurtured in evangelicalism; but he acknowledged that the evangelical church “didn’t resonate” with him.

Carlin earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, then launched a successful career in the commercial and gallery art markets, producing dozens of illustrations for the Franklin Mint. It was through the Franklin Mint that he met his wife, a life-long Catholic, and he began to attend the Catholic Mass with his future wife and her mother. Through them he came to know other members of the parish, whom he found to be loving and faithful people—free from the errors and the reliance on “vain repetition” that he’d heard about in the evangelical church of his youth. “The scales started to fall,” Carlin explained, and he began to understand the Scriptures from a Catholic perspective, which was different from the literal interpretation that he’d once accepted.

As the couple’s relationship grew and they began to discuss marriage, Carlin promised his future wife  that he would raise their children in the Catholic faith, but he was not yet Catholic himself. To better understand his wife’s faith, Neil enrolled in the parish’s RCIA program—but he still had no intention of converting. He wanted, as he explained it, to “hear from the horse’s mouth” what the Church actually teaches; and over the course of the RCIA program, he raised many questions.

The pastor had been an accountant before entering the priesthood, and the deacon who taught the course had been a lawyer, so Carlin was confident that they were well prepared to address his concerns. Indeed they were: Over the year, the two answered every question he posed, chipping away at his fears and misconceptions. In April 2000, as he was preparing to marry, he was received into the Catholic Church.

Even as a Protestant, Carlin had been interested in blending his interest in faith with his career in art. He had occasionally produced religious images, but wasn’t being paid for it—hence, sacred art represented only a small part of his portfolio. Once he converted to the Catholic faith, he found that his new spiritual home was very receptive to his sacred images, and that became his primary focus.  

In 2007, his work was accepted by a Philadelphia gallery and was exhibited, along with a sculpture by an art instructor from Carlin’s college years. The two renewed their acquaintance at the exhibit opening and Carlin followed up, emailing the professor to report his conversion and to share an example of his religious art. To his surprise, the instructor responded that same evening, enthusiastic about his artwork and asking whether he’d be interested in a commission. What began as a chance encounter led to Carlin’s being introduced to then-Archbishop Burke, and eventually to his selection as one of four artists to paint sacred art for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The project turned out to be his largest project to date: Over fourteen months, Carlin executed paintings of St. Gianna Molla and Blessed Father Miguel Pro, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Peregrine Laziosi. Without a historical perspective in Catholicism, Carlin has used his art as an opportunity to learn about the heroic lives of the saints he’s painted.

He was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to create the icon of The Holy Family for the Eighth World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Philadelphia September 22-27, 2015. Although it’s still unconfirmed, Pope Francis is expected to attend that meeting, during what will be  the pope’s first visit to the United States.

At the painting’s September 7 unveiling, Archbishop Chaput also asked the faithful to pray the World Meeting of Families Prayer daily for the success of the Meeting and for their own intentions. The text follows:

God and Father of us all,
in Jesus, your Son and our Savior,
you have made us
your sons and daughters
in the family of the Church.

May your grace and love
help our families
in every part of the world
be united to one another
in fidelity to the Gospel.

May the example of the Holy Family,
with the aid of your Holy Spirit,
guide all families, especially those most troubled,
to be homes of communion and prayer
and to always seek your truth and live in your love.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for us!

Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.  

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