Paul Mullally, '71, Honored to Paint Portrait of Pope Francis

Written by Karen L. Bystrom
January 18, 2018

“The closest I’ve been to the feeling of heaven on earth.”

Renowned painter and Seattle U alumnus Paul Mullally beamed as he described the moment that his daughters, Annelise, 9, and Ise, 7, approached the altar to receive their First Communion from Pope Francis in October 2017. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was a remarkable capstone to an already extraordinary event, the unveiling of Paul’s portrait of the Pope, commissioned in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

The commission was the result of Paul’s friendship with Bill Watson SJ, a member of the Seattle University Jesuit community and President and founder of the Sacred Story Institute. “I knew Paul’s parents, Aloysius and Geraldine Mullally, strong supporters of the Jesuits and Seattle University.” One of the first of Paul’s paintings that captured Father Watson’s attention was his portrait of Thérèse of Lisieux. The painting, commissioned by Paul’s father, is based on a photo of St. Thérèse dressed as Saint Joan for a play that she wrote and performed. Father Watson inherited the painting upon Aloysius’ death and, knowing that St. Thérèse was a favorite of Pope Francis’, he arranged to donate the portrait to the Vatican. “I believe it hangs in his private quarters,” said Paul.

Artist Paul Mullally and Father Bill Watson pose with Paul's painting of Thérèse of LisieuxFather Watson also serves as Vice President with the Gregorian University Foundation, which supports the Pontifical Jesuit Higher Education Consortium in Rome. Each year, foundation trustees and donors attend a colloquium in Rome and the 2017 event coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which is part of the Consortium. “The idea came to me that we should have Paul paint a portrait of Pope Francis for the anniversary. I asked Paul, and he agreed,” said Father Watson. “I wanted Father David Nazar and Father Alan Fogerty to visit Paul with me to finalize the proposal.”

“I went all kind of numb and fuzzy,” said Paul of the request. “Who could refuse?”

Father Watson, Father David Nazar, SJ, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and Alan Fogarty, SJ, President of the Gregorian University Foundation, visited Paul’s home where they viewed his paintings and talked about the Institute’s mission to support Eastern Churches and to reach out to the poor and needy. Coupled with the fact that Pope Francis had just returned from Lesbos where he ministered to Syrian refugees, Paul was inspired to suggest the idea of painting the Pope in that setting. “I could see the glow on everyone’s face,” he said of the others’ reactions.

Father Nazar supplied many photos and videos and Paul began poring over them. “I often use my camera as a sketch book,” he said. “I used 40 different photos for a painting of the Ganges. I didn’t utilize as many photos for this portrait, but the process was the same.” The commission also included a very specific size and location for the painting in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which he considered as he developed his ideas. Based on his research and the guidelines, he created an initial compositional design, a small sketch, which was universally well-received. “I was off and running,” he said. “It was my project for a better part of a year.”

Study for

As he worked on the painting Paul did add one element to the original composition. “I had always envisioned one more hand reaching in,” he said. In the finished painting, one sees the hand of an older man reaching from the lower right side. “It belongs to my 87-year old father-in-law, Bjarne Stangeland, a Norwegian immigrant. “I was tickled to work it into the painting and show it to him.”

Upon completion, the painting hung for a month in the living room of Arrupe House, the home of the Seattle University Jesuits. “We loved having it in the house,” said Father Watson. “We now have a giclée print of the painting hanging in the Arrupe foyer.”

From there, the painting made a stop at St. Joseph School, a Catholic K-8 grade school which Paul’s daughters attend. Paul said that the other parents had known he was an artist but not much beyond that. “I became a total rock star,” he laughed, when talking about their reaction to the painting. KOMO-TV produced a story about the painting while it was in place at the school.

Paul Mullally's daughter, Bente, with his painting at St. Joseph School

Then, the painting was packed and shipped to Rome.

Father Watson explained that the Jesuits at the Pontifical Oriental Institute were asked by Father Nazar to name the painting. They named it “Sotto La Sua Misericordia,” or “Under His Mercy.” “It reflects the Pope’s focus on mercy,” said Father Watson. “But if you look at the blue sky in the corner, it forms a cross, so it also refers to us all being under God’s mercy.”

On October 12, Paul, his wife, Bente and their two daughters were present when the painting was unveiled for Pope Francis. Once the painting arrived, it was hung in its location and covered. “They had shown the Jesuit community photos but only three or four people had seen the actual painting,” explained Father Watson, who was also with the family.

“When my family and I were standing in front of the painting face to face with Pope Francis, I looked at him and then at the painting and thought to myself, yes, I did it!”, said Paul.

Their visit culminated in Mass later that day in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where Pope Francis presided at the Eucharistic Concelebration for thanksgiving on the occasion of the centenary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

Paul had asked whether it might be possible for his daughters to receive their First Communion from Pope Francis.  but was told that it was unlikely, as it wasn’t protocol. “To receive your First Communion from the Father General, at a Mass said by Pope Francis, that’s good,” said Paul. “But I still had a spark of hope.” That hope was realized and his face glowed when he shared a video of the girls leaving the alter after receiving communion from Pope Francis.

Paul Mullally and his family at Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Paul’s path to Rome began at Seattle University, where he graduated with a BFA in Art in 1971. He had struggled with school until a counselor helped him develop a curriculum that made the most of his interest in, and talent for, visual art. After graduation and two years working and painting in Jackson, Wyoming, Paul set out on a nine-month trek across Europe, Asia and Africa, finding inspiration for his art. He later studied at the Art Students League in New York, the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago, the Salmagundi Club and the Aviano Studio.

He has received numerous awards for his paintings and is a “Master Signature Member” of the Oil Painters of America and a Fellow in the American Society of Marine Artists. At the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China and under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee, he participated in the “Creative Cities Collection” at the 2012 Olympics. He was selected to represent the United States artists at the exhibition’s opening ceremony.

Paul Mullally and his painting

Paul was recognized as one of Seattle University’s 100 Outstanding Alumni in 1991 during Seattle University’s Centennial Celebration.

Asked his advice for an art student today at Seattle University, he advises building a strong foundation. “Most of the great modern masters, late 19th and early 20th century, art broke off into different paths but most of them were academically trained before they decided to rebel,” he said. “Learn all of the rules and you can break them as you wish later on.”

Photos, top to bottom. (Courtesy of Paul Mullally unless otherwise noted.)

  • “Sotto La Sua Misericordia,” or “Under His Mercy.” © Seattle University
  • Paul Mullally and Father Bill Watson, with Paul’s portrait of Thérèse of Lisieux.
  • Study of “Sotto La Sua Misericordia,” or “Under His Mercy.” © Seattle University
  • Bente Mullally, Paul’s daughter, interviewed by KOMO TV at St. Joseph School.
  • The unveiling of “Sotto La Sua Misericordia,” or “Under His Mercy” for Pope Francis.
  • Paul Mullally and his family, at his daughters’ First Communion at the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
  • Paul Mullally and his painting, "Alaska Bound - Triumph of Spirit" at London Olympic Art Exhibition in 2012.