Wednesday, August 07, 2013


When Pope Francis visited the Varginha (Manguinhos) favela during his World Youth Day trip to Brazil, wire dispatches reported that the Pope’s rally at a soccer field in the Rio de Janeiro slum featured “a huge painting of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador,” and both the official Vatican newspaper and the Salvadoran press reported that detail.  The back story of how the “Giant Romero Painting” got to Rio tells us a lot about the phenomenon of World Youth Day, as well as the persistence inspired by devotion to Archbishop Romero among the artists who painted it. 
Super Martyrio caught up with the artist responsible for the painting, the Salvadoran Josué Villalta, who was still in Rio, basking in the glory of a long time mission, accomplished.  His drive to create the “Giant Romero Painting” and to bring Romero to World Youth Day dates back over ten years, and his ability to finally pull it off demonstrates how tenacity and determination can lead to an underdog’s coming through.  Villalta created a Romero banner that was sent to World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.  The size of that banner, 13 feet by 13 feet, seemed impressive in the streets of San Salvador.  Unfortunately, it got buried in a sea of other banners in the spectacle of sights and sounds that is the modern World Youth Day.
Undaunted, Villalta and his team of young Salvadoran painters set out to create the largest Romero painting in the world.  Villalta delivered, with a “Giant Romero Painting” that is 60 feet wide and 90 feet tall and weighs over 250 lbs.  It is not only the largest painting of Romero, but one of the largest paintings in the world, period, according to Villalta and his team.  Painted in February and March 2005, the painting was completed in a period of about 8 weeks, with Villalta blowing up an existing photograph of Romero, cutting it into quadrants, and assigning team members the responsibility for painting the individual quadrants in large scale, while he supervised the process from giant scaffolding overhead.  The process for painting, and even for folding and packing, such a large piece was improvised—and documented—by the team.
Still, the ability to make a splash with their piece would elude them for years.  First, the Giant Romero Painting was hung over the façade of the San Salvador Cathedral on occasion of the 25th anniversary of Romero’s assassination in 2005.  However, Pope John Paul II died the day the painting was thus hung, completely sucking the air out of their efforts to get any press.  Undeterred, the team set their sights on World Youth Day 2005, with Pope Benedict XVI, in Cologne Germany, later that year.  Red tape and budget limitations conspired against them, and they fell short of the goal, with the giant painting ending up stranded about five miles outside Cologne, where it remained packed up and stored for a few years.  It never made it to the WYD 2005.  With the election of Mauricio Funes, a Romero devotee, as President of El Salvador in 2009, the painting got a new lease on life, and was featured in events related to Pres. Funes’ inauguration in San Salvador.
The “Giant Romero Painting” finally got its glorious due when Pope Francis brought his message of outreach to the poor to the Rio de Janeiro slum during WYD 2013.  In retrospect, it seems that the “Giant Romero Painting” was meant to be here, at this papal event, and that makes the sequence of events that had previously appeared unfortunate suddenly seem providential.  Being featured during the favela visit virtually ensured that no other sign would rival it, and that the “Giant Romero Painting” would stand out.  More importantly, the “Giant Romero Painting” seemed to fit the thematic focus of the occasion.  Vatican Insider reported that the pope had come to a place “where pictures of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero are to be seen in many places,” and Vatican TV showed a local handing the Pontiff a smaller scale facsimile of the picture for his blessing.

Large Romero Painting for World Youth Day 2002 looked impressive in San Salvador but was dwarfed by the WYD spectacle in Toronto.
Painters in Villalta's workshop in San Salvador create the "Giant Romero Painting" in 2005.

The "Giant Romero Painting" covers the façade of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador in 2005.  Archbishop Romero is buried in the Cathedral's crypt.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes at an appearance with the "Giant Romero Painting" as a backdrop.  Mr. Funes has lobbied Pope Francis to canonize Archb. Romero.

A member of the faithful presents Pope Francis with a small scale replica of the Romero painting as he enters the Varginha community on July 25, 2013.

Success!  The "Giant Romero Painting" looms large over Pope Francis' visit to a slum where he highlighted a message of closeness to the poor, which was the hallmark of Archb. Romero's legacy as well


Romero in Art
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