Two years ago in France, two teenage Islamists stormed a Catholic church in Normandy and took hold of the priest celebrating Mass. They tried to force the 85-year-old priest, Fr Jacques Hamel, submissively to his knees. Instead, the elderly cleric fought back and cried out “Be gone, Satan!” just before the terrorists slit his throat.

Across the Atlantic, American artist Neilson Carlin read about the priest’s story and “felt compelled to commit it to paint”. Working for a year between commissions, he created an icon that went viral on Catholic social media. Its symbolism immediately strikes the viewer. In the painting, three white roses correspond to the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and charity. Red roses evoke the wounds of Christ and palm fronds represent martyrdom. The face of the priest holding the Eucharist remains serene despite a bloody knife at his throat. The words “Satan, Va!” complete the work.

Carlin says he sought to capture in Hamel’s facial expression the “presence of mind to say what he said. He wasn’t fearful. To say those words in that moment, he must have been in control of his emotional and spiritual self. That presence of mind in the face of death reminded me of one of my favourite saints, Maximilian Kolbe.”

Pope Francis echoed a similar sentiment in a homily when he noted that Fr Hamel “did not lose the lucidity to accuse and clearly say the name of his murderer. He clearly said, ‘Be gone, Satan’ ”.

Carlin’s love for men like Hamel and Kolbe reflects his ongoing fascination with martyrs. His many icons, ranging from Joan of Arc to Charles Lwanga to Blessed Miguel Pro, continually explore this theme. This passion for the martyrs grew out of his conversion to Catholicism. “When I converted, I found a treasure trove of heroes I keep revisiting,” he says.

Although baptised Catholic, he was not raised in the faith. He became an Evangelical Christian before returning to the Church at age 30. It was only then that he discovered the lives of the martyrs. For this reason, Catholic iconography had not been among Carlin’s early artistic goals. He had entered college interested in drawing graphic novels and comic books, genres that have been attracting fine artists for decades now. “As traditional painting went down the toilet during the middle of the 20th century, many talented artists turned to illustration, specifically comics books,” Carlin notes.

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