Politics & Policy

The Essence of Pope Francis, Caught in a Master’s Portrait

Somehow a touching episode in the pope’s visit to the United States went unreported in the mainstream media.

On his last day in Washington, Pope Francis hosted world-famous portraitist Igor Babailov for the unveiling of his latest portrait — of Pope Francis himself. As the veil was pulled aside, Pope Francis clutched his chest and said, “I am so touched.” He studied the portrait side to side and up and down. Then he repeated, “So touched. So touched.”

“The little children,” he said, pointing to a miniature of himself with children in the right foreground. Then he drew back, put his hands on the white cassock of his chest, and asked Babailov to comment on the rich details of his composition. The pope had seen the simple sketches of himself that Babailov had made during their earlier sittings in Rome, but he was not prepared for the elaborate symbolism that surrounded the finished grand oil portrait.

Babailov has done portraits of more than a hundred famous world figures, including presidents and royal personages of many nations, as well as the pope’s predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. This portrait, an official memento of the pope’s quietly emotional tour of the United States in 2015, will also join the long rows of portraits in the Vatican collection of popes down the centuries. Bavailov’s conception of the portraitist’s task is to capture more than a photograph — to bring out the inner soul and personal passions of his subjects.

The pope listened attentively as Babailov explained the reasons for the details in his composition. The pope repeated, again, “I am so touched.” Babailov calls his composition “The Holy Cross.” And in fact a brilliant shaft of light, off angle from top right toward lower left, and other elements divide the painting into four quadrants.

On the pope’s white cassock, of course, there is another cross, and one finds several others symbolically woven into other parts of the portrait. The Holy Trinity is there: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the lower foreground an image of the pope washing the feet of the poor balances the little children on the opposite side. All in all, the whole narrative of Francis’s life is suggested around and behind the peaceful pope in the center.

Babailov currently works in his large studio in Nashville, Tenn. He plans to open another studio, in Naples, Fla., to work there during the winter. Born in Russia during the Cold War, he had the good fortune to study art at the feet of a small band of teachers steeped in the Renaissance masters, of whom, in that sense, Babailov is a lineal descendant. He emigrated to Canada early in his career and then to the United States. Elected a foreign honorary academician of the Russian Academy of Arts (est. 1757), he has been awarded many other national and international honors.

For other portraits of his, see Babailov’s website.


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