Artist Says He's Closer to Holy Family After Creating Image for World Meeting

Neilson Carlin Speaks of Commission for Philadelphia Meeting, Future of Sacred Art

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Pennsylvania-based artist Neilson Carlin sees his work as a true calling from God. And he says that each new commission to depict some hero or truth of the faith is an opportunity for meditation, to delve deeper into the great Catholic tradition.

Carlin was selected by those leading the Philadelphia 2015 World Meeting of Families to create the icon of the Holy Family that will serve as the backdrop of the event.

On Sept. 7, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia unveiled the image, which features a toddler-aged Jesus with his hand held in blessing, as Mary rests a protective hand on his leg. St. Joseph’s hand lies on Mary’s shoulder, and behind her, we see Mary’s parents, Ann and Joachim.

ZENIT asked Carlin to tell us about the image, his work as an artist and his hopes for the future of sacred art in the Church.

ZENIT: You were asked to create an icon of the Holy Family for the World Meeting of Families. Does creating sacred art bring you spiritually closer to your subjects, in this case the Holy Family?

Carlin: Absolutely. The creation of every piece of work involves a great deal of research, thought, and meditation on the subject matter. As someone who wasn’t raised a Catholic, each commission is a welcome opportunity to delve deeper into the traditions of the faith.

ZENIT: The icon includes a depiction of Jesus’ grandparents, Joachim and Anna. Why did you decide to include them?

Carlin: The inclusion of Sts. Anna and Joachim was a specific request of His Excellency, Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre who commissioned the piece and oversaw the design development.

ZENIT: As you mentioned, you are a convert to Catholicism. How did you discover the Church?

Carlin: I slowly fell in love with the Church over a six-year period while courting my wife, a cradle Catholic. I began going to Mass with her and my future mother-in-law on a regular basis for no other reason than I wanted to spend time with her. During the six years of regular attendance, I became a part of a loving and spiritually rich community. 

The year before we married, I entered the RCIA program at our parish, not to become a Catholic, but to better understand the Church so I could better understand my wife-to-be. By the time Easter rolled around, thanks in large part to the patient guidance of the priest and deacon leading the class, entering into full communion with the Church was the only real choice to satisfy my spiritual hunger.

ZENIT: The Church has a long history of sponsoring and promoting sacred art, but many would say that recent years have seen a decline in its use and popularity. What is your outlook on the role of art in the Church today?

Carlin: Since I committed my career to creating work for the Church, I certainly hope the decline is reversing! Much of the work I’ve done over the past few years has been for priests redesigning their parishes to «look like a church», and undo some of the post-Vatican II design trends. 

As long as images are recognized as having powerful contemplative and didactic functions, the Church will always need art and artists.

ZENIT: So what is the future of sacred art?

Carlin: That’s really up to the Church. There are a billion Catholics who share 2,000 years of sign, symbol, and tradition. In that billion are artists waiting for opportunities to serve Christ with their vocations. The ingredients for another artistic renaissance abound, but a patron is needed. 

Those of us who have perceived in ourselves «this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their (our) neighbour and of humanity as a whole» («Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists»). 

We will continue to create out of the sheer love of creating. However, we would prefer to do it in service of our brothers and sisters in Christ as opposed to a secular art market that cares little for the good, the true, or the beautiful.


Neilson Carlin:

Photos of the unveiling Mass:

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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