Christmas came early for Benedict XVI. After the general audience on Wednesday, Russian artist Natalia Tsarkova presented the Holy Father with a full-length portrait of himself during one of the rare private audiences granted by the Pope.
Tsarkova, an extraordinarily gifted painter, has been working in Rome for over a decade. She produced five portraits of Pope John Paul II, the only portrait of Pope John Paul I, as well as the stunning "Our Lady of Light"(above) commissioned by the Primavera Foundation in the United States to celebrate the institution of the luminous mysteries of the rosary by John Paul II.
The portrait of Benedict XVI was commissioned by the Patrons Office of the Vatican Museums a year ago. In the past, the Patrons Office has usually obtained funding for restoration and maintenance of the extensive collections of the Vatican Museums, but under its new director, Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu, the office decided to add a new masterpiece to the galleries.
Tsarkova toiled for almost a year on the painting, oil on canvas. She attended the audiences to capture the Holy Father among the faithful, and papal Masses to watch him celebrate the liturgy. Her portrait is a mixture of the public persona she studied as well as the private meditative man that she imagined.
Benedict XVI sits on a throne, which the artist describes as a reminder of his role of teacher from his chair, but also that of Successor of St. Peter. The Holy Spirit in the form of the dove hovers above his head, bathing him with light the same way Bernini's window of the Holy Spirit rains golden light on the Cathedra San Petri in St. Peter's Basilica.
The elaborately decorated chair belonged to Pope Leo XIII, and has carved cherubim over the shoulders and under the armrests. One angel, illuminated by the heavenly rays, turns its gaze lovingly toward the Pope.
Tsarkova's greatest labor of love in the work involved rendering Benedict XVI's facial expression. Magazine and newspaper photos rarely show the Pope in a flattering fashion, but after careful studies, she captured an intent look tinged with kindness; his far-seeing gaze looks toward the future of the Church out of concern for the souls under his care.
To portray the complexity of his expression, Tsarkova worked on preparatory drawings for months. A small but beautiful oil sketch remains as testimony to her work, in which the warm, gentle smile of Benedict XVI is recognizable to all those who have had the pleasure of seeing the Holy Father.
Also different from John Paul II's portraits, Benedict XVI wears a heavy crimson cope which sparkles with reflected light in its heavy folds. Tsarkova defines her use of red to frame the Pope as a symbol of both faith and love while the woven gold miter on his head represents the divine Kingdom.
A curious clasp closes the Pope's mantle. Amid the Baroque swathes of fabric highlighted with rich embroidery, a broad pewter buckle draws the cope across his heart. The design is almost primitive -- parallel waving lines trace the simple form of Christ embracing his mother.
It seems that Tsarkova is hinting that despite all his years of curial experience and the grandeur of his role as Pope, Benedict XVI remains a simple man at heart, unaffected by the pageantry that surrounds him.
Benedict XVI's unique gift of taking complex lessons and transmitting them in clear, understandable and even catchy language motivated the artist to place a slim volume under the Pope's fingers. Although Benedict XVI has written numerous books as one of the greatest theologians of the past century, his teaching is straightforward and accessible, allowing the faithful to gain a better understanding of the Church and its doctrines.
As I was standing in Natalia's studio, I saw copies of all her paintings of John Paul II around the rooms and I felt the now familiar pang of nostalgia for the Holy Father that I had known all my life. But then looking at her portrait of Benedict XVI, I saw St. Peter's Square depicted in the background, with the sun shining down on Bernini's colonnade as it embraces the obelisk that witnessed St. Peter's martyrdom.
Tsarkova's vision of Benedict XVI, both intensely passionate about his mission and warm and fatherly toward his flock, seems to herald the advent of an exciting new day in the life of the Church.More here.