By Mary Shovlain
VATICAN CITY, DEC. 12, 2007 (Zenit.org).- It happens only once during a pontificate. Benedict XVI received his official portrait today from renowned Russian painter Natalia Tsarkova.
The unveiling took place during a private meeting in Paul VI Hall after the weekly general audience.
Tsarkova is the first woman to be an official Vatican portrait painter. Pope John Paul II was the subject of her first official papal work. She painted him during the Jubilee Year 2000 and that portrait now hangs in the Vatican Museums.
Speaking to ZENIT after her meeting with Benedict XVI, Tsarkova said the Pontiff thanked her for her work and said he was very happy with the outcome. The Holy Father told her he is familiar with her painting and admires her past portraits of John Paul II and various cardinals.
The private audience, which was supposed to last five minutes, lasted for 20, as Tsarkova explained the “secrets” in the painting — specifically the angels that adorn the papal throne, which, she said, “come to life.”
Tsarkova said the angels seemed to be the Pope’s favorite aspect of the portrait, noting that in his recent discourse on the role of bishops, he compared their work to that of the angels, God’s messengers.
Tsarkova said she wanted the painting to be symbolic. “The Holy Father,” she said, “is seated on a throne and surrounded by angels and is symbolically resting upon them, a sign of the support they give him in his ministry.”
“In his hand, the Pope is holding a book of his discourses as a sign of his dialogue with the modern world,” the artist continued. “This is a sign of peace because it is through dialogue that we can achieve peace.”
Tsarkova said the concept for the portrait began as soon as Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, when she began going to liturgical celebrations in the Vatican to observe him and get inspiration.
“I had met him as a cardinal and known him through his many writings but I had to know him as Pope,” she said.
The painting was financed by the Vatican’s Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.
Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu, international director of the patrons office, told ZENIT how Tsarkova received the commission: “The then ‘sostituto’ of the Secretary of State, recently elevated Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, now prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, had the idea of Natalia doing a portrait of the Holy Father. He then shared the idea with several friends who were Patrons of the Arts. From there she began to work to create this wonderful portrait.”
Father Haydu said patrons were not hard to find for such a work: “Under my predecessor, Dominican Father Allen Duston, the office helped find sponsors for the Tzarkova portrait. […] Mr. John Brogan, a longtime patron of the arts, helped make this portrait a reality, along with our chapter in the United Kingdom.”
According to Father Haydu, the fact that a Russian Orthodox woman painted a portrait of a German Pope is symbolic: “I find it eloquent that, two individuals whose peoples were divided in the recent past, Germany and Russia, that is, are providentially united in this artistic endeavor.”
“As we know,” he continued, “Benedict XVI has made Christian unity one of the hallmarks of his pontificate, and this painting is just one more providential gesture of the coming together of the Orthodox and Catholic faiths.”