The Pope Francis mural in New York (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

The Story Behind the Pope Francis Mural: A ‘Wall Dog’s’ Testimony

Van Rainy Hecht-Nielsen had been painting 30-story walls in New York and Los Angeles for a decade; but nothing like this. Normally, it’s cars or movie advertisements, occasionally giant-size women’s underwear—always selling something. He was used to it. It put food on the table for his wife and soon-to-be seven children.

In his bachelor days, he made a living as fine artist, with an increasing devotion to religious art. But the demands of marriage and fatherhood compelled him to find more stable work. So he put his religious art on the backburner and became a “wall dog,” one of only a handful of painters in the country with the training—and let’s face it: courage—to hang from skyscrapers painting detailed advertisements for twelve hours a day. That didn’t leave him much time for religious art.

But then Pope Francis came. And when Pope Francis comes, we know to expect the unexpected. Craig Tubiolo, Director of Programing and Production for the Desales Marketing Group of the Diocese of Brooklyn, got the inspired idea “to paint a big picture of the pope in the middle of city.” It was a last-minute long-shot, but it just so happened that the wall was available for the month of the Pope’s visit. Quickly, contacts were made, contracts signed, and Hecht-Nielsen got the call. No one knew that the lead painter was a devout Catholic artist yearning to return to religious art—but then, what else would you expect?

All of a sudden, this relatively unknown Catholic artist from Colorado was painting the most visible mural in the world. There were stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera. People everywhere were fascinated by the mural, which has probably been pictured in every major newspaper in America. The wall dogs normally get their fair share of cocked-heads and questions—it’s strange and impressive work, after all—but never interviews with major news outlets.

But this painting struck a chord. Even Tubiolo was surprised by the success of his idea: “I knew it would get press, but I didn’t think it’d be a global story! It’s the most secular part of the city, and people are stopping to look, take pictures—they’re stopping to reflect.”

Indeed, according to Hecht-Nielsen: “For a moment it seemed to become a temporary pilgrimage site.”

I asked Hecht-Nielsen about the sudden attention. He answered not like a painter, but an artist:

“I believe the response to this mural shows how willing people are to give something meaningful a chance if it is presented to them with power and beauty. Much of people’s lives are consumed by the images of materialism, and this leads them to try and find pleasure and peace in objects of ownership. With this mural, however, people were pleased and fulfilled with the thing itself, and that is peace—to be happy with the being of a thing. I believe we can all be reminded of this, especially us in the church: that people still long for being-in-itself.”

In a space that has been covered with advertisements for as long as anyone can remember, there was suddenly something for us. Classical conductor and Catholic convert, Bryan Zaros, noted the difference immediately: “The pope’s image soars above all the noise and clatter of Midtown, higher than any other advertisement, as if the mural were pointing our gaze upwards, above all the other commercial distractions that flood our consciousness, to receive a blessing and the encouragement to be the presence of Christ in the city. What a gift it is to the city!”

What could be more shockingly different from an advertisement than a gift? Instead of selling something, this mural was announcing, proclaiming, heralding, singing from the New York equivalent of the mountaintops the good news of the pope’s visit. It was the Gospel breaking through the rote world of consumerism—how fitting for Pope Francis!

The enthusiastic response reminds us of the importance of art in evangelization, a theme particularly dear to both of Pope Francis’ predecessors. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists in 1999: “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her, the Church needs art.” Pope Benedict XVI followed with his own letter in 2009; but the Pope Emeritus’ views on beauty are perhaps best expressed in a talk he gave while still Cardinal Ratzinger, in which he said: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the artists which has grown in her womb.” It cannot be denied that these teachings have been largely ignored in America; but Hecht-Nielsen, himself a convert to Catholicism, testifies to their veracity and efficacy.

“Art played a very large role in my conversion to Catholicism,” he said. “I was raised a Lutheran, and as I grew into my teens I became unfulfilled with the model of life it posed. Growing up in the mountains, I always had an affinity for the sudden beauty of the land, which seemed to catapult one’s thoughts into the distance. Because of this, a naive, but energetic love of man and man’s works came to dominate my hopes. I suppose with my sadness over the incompleteness of the faith of my youth, I began to look not to God, but to man for the counterpart to the beauty I saw around me.

“I looked for what was great and true and beautiful,” Hecht-Nielsen remembers. “I found many things, many things of great love. However, even they became chimera.

“The distant thing that I sought, the space in-between stars, was not there. This began the long process of looking at God again, and seeing that He was my desire. As I came to realize, after much study and work, this could happen in no place other than the Catholic Church. The Church came to me, I should say, and I fell into the arms of Mother Mary and at the feet of Christ.”

This mural reminds us of a core mission of the church, one that is sorely needed and sorely neglected today: it reminds us that beauty is a form of charity. The church was once the great patron of the arts, erecting glorious cathedrals and commissioning exquisite works of art ad majorem Dei gloriam (as our Jesuit Pope would say). This has largely fallen away, but perhaps it is coming back; indeed, it needs to come back, according to Hecht-Nielsen:

“Art has to be resurrected! The church especially is tasked with cultivating the earth. This was man’s original purpose—to delight in the gift of life from God and the wonder of being.” Now, he worries, in the abandonment of modern society toward this offering, “we have fallen not into shadows, but into artificial light. So the true man is not found, but the simulation of man. Because of this, we as a church, as a people, as a soul, must till the hard soil again, until we can get something to grow which is beautiful to behold, and fulfills our purpose and our desires to respond to beauty with beauty.”

Hecht-Nielsen’s words echo those of Pope Francis in his first encyclical, “The Joy of the the Gospel,” where the Holy Father repeatedly emphasized the role of beauty in proclaiming the Gospel, going so far as to say that “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the via pulchritudinis (way of beauty),” and “Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.”

Perhaps this magnificent mural is a step in that direction. Hecht-Nielsen certainly hopes so: “I hope this painting blesses the pope’s trip in any way. Perhaps it prepared the city for a new grace. I also hope that it plants a seed for the future that can grow. I believe, having seen the reaction of New Yorkers, that people are longing for more than advertising. Hopefully we in the Ccurch can realize from this that we have a duty to feed the poor and anoint the feet of Christ with precious oil.”

Christopher T. Haley is Director of Publications and Marketing for the Hildebrand Project and President of Novae Ars Vitae. He lives in Dallas, TX, where he writes on art, culture, and Catholicism.

Van Rainy Hech-Nieslen lives in Colorado with his wife Ashlee and their seven children. His fine art can be found at www.vanrainyhechtnielsen.com.