In the heart of Manhattan, a giant mural of Pope Francis looks out over New York City, smiling and waving. Its painter, Van Hecht-Nilsen, hopes the spectacular image will help people find happiness in God.
“I think that Pope Francis has an authentic love that can counter this false love our society lives,” Hecht-Nilsen said.
The artist worried that American society “has put Christianity aside.”
“I hope that people come out of the darkness and a least see the light and consider that God is real. The world in which they live has a false happiness without God,” he told CNA Sept. 9.
The mural is on a building at the corner of Eighth Avenue near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, where the Pope will celebrate his only Mass in New York Sept. 25.
Hecht-Nilsen and three other painters used about 80 gallons of paint for the image on New York City’s 34th Street. The painting’s canvas: a building wall 223 feet tall and 99 feet wide.
The painter said it was a “great blessing” to work on the mural. He also sees it as an opportunity to offer his work to God. He prayed the rosary while painting 10 hours a day for 10 days. He didn’t even rest for weekends.
The painter, who is 41, usually lives in Loveland, Colo. with his wife and seven children. When he was hired to paint the mural, he left for New York. Although he had already painted several advertisements, this was his first religious mural.
He was born into a Lutheran family. He learned to paint at age 22 as an apprentice to another teacher. Some friends introduced him to a Catholic priest and he began to read about theology.
“I began to pray and speak especially with the Virgin Mary. Communion became the foundation of everything for me since I converted 10 years ago,” Hecht-Nilsen said.
He had great hopes for his work.
“I hope and pray that many people convert when they see the mural. I hope the city goes out a bit from its intoxication, and puts a little attention on God,” he said. He hoped people “will turn and will see the face of God through the Pope painted in the mural instead of making jokes or laughing at him.”
The painting team faced some problems painting the mural, like a temperature around 95 degrees. This made the picture dry quickly, but the heat wore out the painters.
Hecht-Nilsen said it was a challenge to paint the Pope’s face because it’s easily recognized.
“I had to make sure the features came out equal. I concentrated on the face while the others painted the hands and the lower part.”
The mural will stay up for six weeks.
“For me it was a great project and a great decision to paint this mural for the coming of the Pope,” Hecht-Nilsen said. “It’s a huge honor because this is one of the most cultural places in the United States. A lot of advertisements start here and then go outside of the country.”
He also reflected on the benefits for his team of painters.
“All of us came from different backgrounds and I think this was a great experience for the two painters who weren’t Catholic,” he said.
The mural was designed by Israel Ochoa, a member of the DeSales Media Group based in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The design is based on a photo of Pope Francis taken by photographer Giulio Napolitano.