“The Holy Family” by Neil Carlin//photo courtesy of Neil Carlin.
When Kennett Square’s Neil Carlin received a call from Bishop John McIntyre asking him to create artwork for the World Meetings 2015, one thing stood out. “The word ‘world’ kept rolling around in my head,” he says.
Carlin accepted the commission back in 2007, eight years after he’d converted to Catholicism. He gave himself a mere five seconds to dispel any fears, likening it to a ritual employed by Lost character Jack Shephard, who would count to five before performing surgery.
Growing up, the Protestant-raised, University of the Arts alum never paid much attention to Catholicism. But he’s always been intrigued by religious works of art. “In the ’90s, I was haunted by the cross,” Carlin says.
He would take time away from his secular art, which focused primarily on landscapes, to explore pieces inspired by Christianity. It wasn’t until 1994, when he met his future wife—a Catholic—that he began attending Mass. At first, he only went so they could spend more time together. “The Catholic Church was not what I was expecting—at least based on the stereotypes I’d heard from my Protestant years,” the artist says.
Catholicism’s 2,000-year artistic tradition inspired him to reevaluate his Protestant ties. “The desire I had to make Christ-centered work—it was only in the Catholic Church that I could find that,” he says.
Now, the apex of his career is the oil painting he created for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia. It depicts Christ as a toddler, surrounded by Joseph, Mary and and her parents. Though Jesus stands toward the right in the painting, Carlin’s use of light and shadow makes him the focal point.
“It all points back to Christ,” says Carlin. “It’s a paradigm of how to live, how to exist. When you’re stressed, when you’re anxious, it’s looking to the example that Christ laid down.”
“The Holy Family” is now on display at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where it will remain even after Pope Francis visits. And while Carlin doesn’t know if he’ll have the chance to meet the pope, he’s humbled by the opportunity to create the painting. “It’s exciting enough to serve my fellow Catholics at the parish levels, but this piece is going to be seen on the world stage,” he says.
To view the painting, visit Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, 1723 Race St., Philadelphia.