Before the Pope’s visit, a 180-feet-tall Francis arrives in New York

WASHINGTON (TIP): On sept 2 afternoon, Van Hecht-Nielsen had just finished painting the elbow of a 180-foot-tall Pope Francis overlooking Madison Square Garden, when he took a break for lunch.

Standing near Penn Plaza Park, as benches filled up with officer workers and tourists, 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 last eight years, Hecht-Nielsen, a 41-year-old artist and Catholic convert, has painted the south-facing wall of 494 Eighth Avenue, most recently with ads for Cadillac. But creating possibly the largest hand-painted mural of Francis ever done, a project commissioned by the Diocese of Brooklyn ahead of his visit to New York at the end of September, took on spiritual significance.

“It’s a great blessing,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, he and David Barnett, 27, a journeyman painter, tackled Francis’ belt and part of his gown. They planned to paint his waving hand next.

Since last Monday, from 6.30am to 7pm, 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 part, he said, because of the level of detail. But the rest required stamina and care to avoid dehydration and sunburn in 90-degree heat. (They wore wide-brimmed hats.)

On Tuesday afternoon, he and David Barnett, 27, a journeyman painter, tackled Francis’ belt and part of his gown. 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 than working on billboards for YouTube or Peroni.

“We rarely get the opportunity to paint something that has meaning for others,” he said.

Kofi Sasu, 37, a Catholic from New Jersey who works a few blocks away, has been keeping tabs on the mural’s progress since they painted the skullcap.

He said he was in awe with what they had done. “It’s so realistic.”

Craig Tubiolo, who handles programming for the diocese and spearheaded the project, said it was divine intervention that the 225-foot-tall billboard space that towers over Madison Square Garden, where Francis will celebrate a Mass on September 25, became available for the month of September.

“There’s no way that was a coincidence,” he said.

The mural will be on view through October 5, but Tubiolo is eager that the pope will see it first-hand.

“I hope he takes a selfie in front of it,” he said.

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