Creating the hand-painted mural of Pope Francis took on special spiritual significance for a Roman Catholic convert in New York City.
NEW YORK — Van Hecht-Nielsen had just finished painting the elbow of a 180-foot-tall Pope Francis overlooking Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, when he took a break for lunch.
Standing near Penn Plaza Park, he took a moment to reflect on his latest job.
It’s not quite a miracle on 34th Street, but it’s close.
For the past eight years, Hecht-Nielsen, 41, an artist and Roman Catholic convert, has painted the south-facing wall of 494 Eighth Ave., most recently with ads for Cadillac. But creating the hand-painted mural of Francis, a project commissioned by the Diocese of Brooklyn before the pope’s New York visit at the end of September, took on spiritual significance.
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“It’s a great blessing,” he said.
Since last Monday, from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Hecht-Nielsen and his team of three painters, armed with hoghair brushes and 80 to 100 gallons of paint, have been working to put flesh on the mural.
The face was the most challenging, he said, because of the level of detail. But the rest required stamina and care to avoid dehydration and sunburn in 90-degree heat.
He and David Barnett, 27, a journeyman painter, tackled Francis’ belt and part of his gown Tuesday. They planned to paint his waving hand next.
Although the work had less spiritual importance for Barnett, who is Jewish, he said it felt different from working on billboards for YouTube or Peroni.
“We rarely get the opportunity to paint something that has meaning for others,” he said.
On Wednesday, a wooden chair the pope will use when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden was unveiled. The chair has a light-brown finish with a darker mahogany trim and a white cushioned seat, back and arms. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the symbolism of a chair was “very important.”
“A chair represents unity, and a chair represents teaching authority,” Dolan said, adding that the pope wanted something simple and wooden without any designs.
The chair was built by a group of immigrant day laborers in a garage in Port Chester. The Archdiocese of New York said immigrants were chosen because of Francis’ concern for those who are marginalized and for his desire for justice in the world.
Inmates at a Philadelphia prison are building a chair for the pope’s visit there.
In Manhattan, Kofi Sasu, 37, a Catholic from New Jersey who works a few blocks away from the billboard, has been keeping tabs on the mural’s progress since the skullcap was painted.
He said he was in awe with what the artists had done: “It’s so realistic.”
Craig Tubiolo, who handles programming for the Brooklyn diocese and spearheaded the billboard project, said it was divine intervention that the 225-foot-tall billboard that towers over Madison Square Garden, where Francis will celebrate Mass on Sept. 25, became available for September.
“There’s no way that was a coincidence,” he said.
The mural will be on view through Oct. 5, but Tubiolo is eager for the pope to see it firsthand. “I hope he takes a selfie in front of it,” he said.