300 yellow and white Vatican flags snap in the breeze along Pennsylvania Avenue in the hours before Benedict XVI arrived. When taken to his rooms at the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue (just opposite the Vice President’s home) the pope should have discovered, hanging on the wall, a life size portrait of himself by the great Russian émigré painter, Igor Babailov.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio, said in advance that the portrait catches the pope’s shyness, strength, and almost physical presence, in stirring colors of light gold against the dark. Best of all, the figure of the risen Christ towers above Pope Benedict, which is as it should be for one called to be the Vicar of Christ.
That the portrait was painted in the United States, and presented in the United States, is thoroughly fitting. It will mark the occasion of the pope’s visit for a great many generations into the future. In its style and presentation the portrait reaches back to the traditions of the great artists of the Renaissance. It does so by lovingly capturing the details of the human being, from the calm fire in the pope’s eyes to the realistic depiction of his fingers. Barely discernible in the background are Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, a slightly brighter sky around Benedict XVI’s coat of arms, and below that three burning candles honoring the Trinity and, reflected in their light, the pages of the Missal with all its readings from the Bible.
Babailov has rendered portraits of many famous personages from Pope John Paul II to Frederick Hart, the American sculptor, pianist Byron Janis, President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Former First Lady Hillary R. Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and such athletes as Boomer Esiason and Tiki Barber. His work can be seen here.