Egging On the Pope; a Rococo Rarity

Artist Natalia Tsarkova’s Creative Gift

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 22, 2004 ( As one can well imagine, the Holy Father receives numerous gifts throughout the year, everything from baseball caps to antique manuscripts. The Swiss Guards even speak of an elderly woman who brought the Pope a home-cooked meal every day. So when his birthday rolls around, one really has to ask, what do you give the man who has everything?

Artist Natalia Tsarkova came up with an innovative answer to this dilemma. This young, highly talented Russian painter who has already executed the official portraits of John Paul I and John Paul II, as well as several other works for the Holy See, decided to offer the Pope another painting, but this time not on a panel or canvas, but on an egg — a foot-high painted wooden egg.

Tsarkova delivered the egg to the Holy Father on June 20, a month after the Pope’s birth date of May 18, in a private audience.

I went to Tsarkova’s tiny studio above the noisy, bustling Piazza Barberini where artists such as Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona would have been spotted 400 years ago, to ask her about it.

Tsarkova said the idea of the egg had been percolating for about two years. «I was thinking about how I could do something special for this Pope who has been so good to me,» she said. «I wanted to make something unique for him.»

She hit upon the idea of an egg. «The egg is a symbol of life, creation and resurrection,» she explained. But in Tsarkova’s case, the symbolism was more personal. «I am Russian and Russia is famous for its beautiful, jeweled eggs designed by Fabergé,» she said. «I wanted to create an artistic link between Eastern and Western Europe.»

Tsarkova showed me photographs of her egg, which is covered with scenes from the life of the Pope, as well as portraits of the people who are closest to him and paintings that she has executed for the Holy See. The events of 2004 were particularly emphasized. Tsarkova, who is Russian Orthodox, sees 2004 as a special year, as Easter fell on the same date in both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars.

Above the miniature replica of Tsarkova’s painting of the «Last Supper» she pointed out two entwined branches. «One is the olive, symbol of Catholic Easter. The other, flecked with tiny yellow flowers, is pussy willow, the first tree to blossom in the spring and the symbol of Orthodox Easter,» she explained.

The symbolism of nature is present throughout the work. Poppies freckle the space under the «Last Supper» to represent the drops of blood Christ shed for mankind. Sheep are arrayed next to the image of St. Peter’s Square as a reminder of Jesus’ words to St. Peter, written in both Greek and Latin over the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, «Feed my sheep and lambs.»

Cardinals Edmund Szoka, Angelo Sodano and Paul Poupard figure in the work, as do Archbishop Piero Marini, papal master of ceremonies, and Archbishop James Harvey, prefect of the Pontifical Household. A special place is reserved for John Paul II’s personal secretary and dear friend Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is borne through the air to the Pope by an angel. Tsarkova smiled warmly as she showed me that detail. «He was sent by the Pope’s guardian angel,» she explained, «to protect and watch over the Holy Father.»

The petite, blond artist herself is portrayed swathed in black, kneeling as she presents her paintings to John Paul II.

What did the Pope think of it? «He looked at it for a long time, smiling at some of the details and studying some parts very intently,» she answered. He was particularly surprised and pleased by one detail. «There are baby angels in many parts of the work, but I put one sitting behind the Holy Father writing in a book,» Tsarkova said. The title of the book? «Arise, Let Us Be Going!» which was released this year on the Pope’s birthday.

At the moment, this beautiful gift sits in the Pope’s apartments. Someday it will likely join Tsarkova’s other works in the Vatican Museums.

* * *

A Monument to the Other Mary

Speaking of eggs, today is the feast of Mary Magdalene.

A little-known legend has it that Mary Magdalene spent several years in Rome and actually met Emperor Tiberius. She proclaimed to him about Christ’s resurrection, showing him an egg as a symbol of new life with the words: «Christ is Risen!» Tiberias scoffed that it was impossible to rise from the dead, any more than the egg in her hand could turn red. The egg immediately turned scarlet.

According to some, such would be the origin of coloring Easter eggs.

Despite her great importance both as «apostle to the apostles» and in the history of art, surprisingly little is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene in Rome, with one noteworthy exception.

On her feast, many choose to attend Mass at the Church of Mary Magdalene near the Pantheon, which holds the claim of being the one and only Rococo church in Rome.

In the town where the Baroque was born, one wouldn’t think that Rococo be so rare. The Rococo was an artistic trend immediately following the Baroque, between the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It took hold in France and Austria with structures such as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles or the church of «Die Wies» by Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmerman in Wies, Austria. It never caught on in Rome.

This style drew attention away from the exterior of the building. Numerous windows and openings to light gave the impression that the exterior was merely a transparent membrane stretched over the bones of the structure. The interior, however, exploded with light and color.

The term Rococo comes from the French word «rocaille» meaning shell-shaped and indeed the shell is standard rococo decorative fare. But while used derogatively in the Enlightenment, the shell is a perfect summation of the Rococo — an unassuming container which conceals a treasure within.

The style lends an ephemeral feel to the building, as if it could be swept away at any moment. Die Wies cropped up in a rural landscape — a miraculous vision that could just as easily disappear again. The décor itself, replete with plaster curls and waves in pastel hues, seems like icings expertly applied by a pastry chef.

Deemed an inappropriate form of architecture for the Eternal City, it does nonetheless suit the little building dedicated to the saint who according to the Golden Legend, every day «was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears.»

Mary Magdalene’s Church was rebuilt by Carlo Fontana and Giuseppe Sardi from 1673 to 1735 over a pre-existing 13th-century structure.

Although the interior uses dark marble veneers in the 17th-century Roman fashion, the church has a lively sense of movement through its elliptical shape and its upward emphasis where frescoed and plastered cherubim hover.

Tradition has it that Mary Magdalene died in France where she had gone with her brother Lazarus and others, and that her relics are in the shrine of La Sainte-Baume.

* * *

Ritzy Embassy

Last week the French took over the summer party scene with Bastille Day celebrations. On July 14, a lucky few were invited to the French Embassy to celebrate their country’s Independence Day.

Although there were no grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, the French Embassy boasts the most spectacular venue of any embassy in Rome — the Farnese Palace. Begun in 1517 when the future Pope Paul III was still Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the splen
did palace shows off the architectural skills of both Antonio Sangallo and Michelangelo.

The Farnese is one of the most imposing palaces ever built in Rome, dominating the square of the same name and casting its shadow over the picturesque church of St. Bridget of Sweden next door. Powerful architectural forms by Michelangelo grace its stately interior courtyard, an exquisite garden facing Via Giulia, the most glamorous street of the Renaissance.

The Farnese family further enhanced the building in 1597, engaging Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci to paint one of the most beautiful painting cycles in the world, «The Loves of the Gods.» Vibrant color, bold drawing and a puckish sense of humor make this work a landmark in the history of art.

In 1874, the French bought the palace and installed their ambassador to the newly formed Italian state. Mussolini repurchased the building in 1936 and leased it to the French for 99 years. France pays the Italian state a symbolic payment of 1 lira a year and in return Italy pays 1 franc a year for its embassy in Paris.

On Bastille Day a long line forms outside the palace for the public opening to the courtyard and the Carracci gallery upstairs. The magic entry pass? A French passport.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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