“Many of the visitors who went to see the pictures were overwhelmed and prayed before them. They were making the sign of the Cross as they faced the painted canvasses or trying to touch the image of the Holy Father with their hands.”
In this interview with ZENIT, Argentine painter Mercedes Fariña from Buenos Aires, made this reflection on how her paintings of Pope Francis have been embraced not only by Argentineans, but by the world, and how her one-time neighbor became the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.
The 37-year-old painter, a mother of a four-year-old boy, has always been interested in sacred art and has held two exhibitions in Argentina in both Saint Joseph’s Basilica of Flores, during last Easter, and in the Ecclesiastical Museum of the Cathedral of La Plata, June to Aug. 2014. More than 10,000 and 30,000 people, respectively, visited the exhibitions.
Currently, the Vatican Collection displays her exhibition’s first work of art in one of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s buildings.
In addition to sharing her personal encounters with then-Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina and of her and her son’s recent meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican, Fariña also tells ZENIT about how the Pontifical Council for Culture has valued her work and her upcoming exhibit next month.
ZENIT: Can you explain how your friendship with Pope Francis began in Buenos Aires?
I met Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as any other neighbor of my neighborhood, who came to Saint Joseph’s Basilica in Flores, when he was invited to offer Mass on important dates for the local parishioners. On various opportunities, I had the occasion to greet him, without ever imagining that Father Bergoglio, once elected Pope, would later be the protagonist of one of my most special series [art series]. At that time, I did not know that months later, I would be invited by the Holy See to be in his presence again, although this time to hand him the first picture in the world made in his honor: I being its author.
ZENIT: Can you speak about your experiences both in Buenos Aires and in Rome?
Once Bergoglio was elected Pope, I decided to do, through my profession, a simple and humble homage that would immortalize the special occasion. So I represented him with the papal attire, which he wore the day he assumed office, praying next to the façade of the church of his native neighborhood, where in his youth he discovered his priestly vocation.
Once I finished this first portrait, I had the opportunity to send him a photograph of it, together with a personal letter. To my surprise, Francis answered me a few days later, with a handwritten letter in which he thanked me, […] for the portrait and congratulated me on my artistic ability, in addition to sending me his fatherly blessing.
I had such an incredible joy from having received this personal recognition by the protagonist, if you will, of my first picture, that I was inspired to continue developing a series where I would show him together with different Christian icons, to which he had a special devotion, as well as in places that had been very representative in his priestly life.
While I was finishing the fifth picture of this series, entitled “Habemus Papam,” I received an e-mail from the Apostolic Nunciature in Buenos Aires, which included an invitation from the Prefecture of the Papal Household, to take part in a Papal Audience, where I would give him the first picture and would present to him in person the remaining pictures of the series in small-scale reproductions.
This meeting, which took place on October 9, 2013, was a very special moment in my life, which I will always treasure. I shared some minutes with Francis, during which he thanked me for my visit and the pictures I made in his honor; he blessed me and my little son, and he gave us two beautiful Rosaries with the motto of his pontificate.
ZENIT: What was your reaction when he was elected Pope?
I felt great joy, a lot of emotion and surprise upon hearing the news that my neighbor became Pope. The news was talked about in every corner of my neighborhood, Flores, and every neighbor told stories about the moments they shared with Father Bergoglio, as well as special friendships or memories they had with him. His name was repeated at bus stops, in grocery stores, in family gatherings and, of course, among pupils of my studio. The impact on our neighborhood was one of the motivations, which made me decide to make the first picture. Originally, I was pleased that it would be exhibited at Saint Joseph’s Basilica in Flores. I never imagined that finally, at Easter of 2014, I would be exhibiting there a complete series of pictures in homage to Pope Francis, with the exception of the first, which was already in the Vatican.
ZENIT: Do you believe the Holy Father is an inspiration? Do you believe he is helping the Church?
Not only was I inspired by the figure of the Pope, but also by his profound spiritual convictions and the message he transmits in each of his homilies. I clarify that I am not a portrait painter. I do not dedicate myself to painting commissioned portraits. I only paint what I like and what inspires me. With the series “Habemus Papam,” I wished to represent in sacred art the figure of Pope Francis from an iconic and symbolic place, from the values he embodies and not from a hegemonic or hieratic vision, which could be confused with idolatry to his image.
To realize this series, I was also inspired by a fragment of The Creation of Michelangelo, Raphael’s Virgin and Child, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Therese of Lisieux and the Virgin Knot-Untier, among others.
I believe that Pope Francis’ election will take the Church on a pastoral path of renewal, where her members are urged by the papal message to go out more to the street, and not be so self-referential. Francis’ Church will listen more to the people, to their needs, their reality, giving more containment and inclusion.
ZENIT: In addition to Pope Francis, has there been any contact between you and the Holy See?
I have received letters from the Vatican Secretariat of State, in addition to the handwritten letter that Francis himself wrote me, in which the recognition of my pictorial series by the Holy See is documented. Also, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, has esteemed, on behalf of the Council, the virtues of my profession and my artistic production in homage to Pope Francis’ assumption of office.
ZENIT: Can you speak a little about your four-year-old son and his closeness to the Holy Father, both through your artwork and through a real encounter?
In the fourth picture of the series, entitled “Haurietis Aquas,” I decided to paint my four-year-old son, Lorenzo, next to the Holy Father, while he receives his blessing. I imagined and painted this composition, months before I was invited to the Holy See.
The moment I was received by Francis he asked about my son, who was by my side, and, believe it or not, he blessed him in the same way I had imagined it in the picture a long time before! He gave my son, Lorenzo, a little kiss. Oh my, what a moment!
ZENIT: You have alluded to a coincidence when you heard you were invited to an audience with Pope Francis. Can you elaborate?
I received the invitation to attend the audience with Pope Francis precisely when I was giving the last brush-strokes to the picture that includes the Pope next to the Virgin Knot-Untier, advocation of the Virgin Mary to whom, believe it or not, Jorge Bergoglio has great devotion.
ZENIT: What’s ahead?
I will be opening an exhibit in México, Mar. 14-22, in the Museum of Fine Arts of Querétaro, which is the former Monastery of San Agustín, and then it will be relaunched in Guadalajara, Mar. 23 -28, in the Museum of Sacred Art of the Main Cathedral.
I am working on a series inspired by Saint John XXIII’s last encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” which urges men of the world to live in peace. This series originated from the last picture of the series “Habemus Papam,” which shows Francis interacting with a Jewish child and a Muslim child, placing his hands on a transparent sphere that contains the word peace written in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew. In this new series, the protagonists are children, representing the coming generations that are shown living in peace.
I also have signed a commitment with Daniel Gassmann, the Director of Caritas Buenos Aires, stating that I will allocate for charitable works the greater part of eventual profits that might stem from exhibitions or commercialization of the pictures or their reproductions.[Original Language: Spanish] [Translation by ZENIT]