The Vatican’s portraitist and official court painter is the Russian born, Orthodox believer Natalia Tsarkova who has painted Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, among others.
Tsarkova arrived in Rome in the early 1990s and began doing portraits of Roman aristocrats, who introduced her at the Vatican where her background captured the attention of late pope John Paul II.
"He spoke Russian with me. He said 'Long live Russian art!'" remembers the now 45-year-old, thumping her fist for emphasis with the same glee as the late pontiff. John Paul II made great strides in rebuilding relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and Tsarkova said she too feels she can play a role.
"I feel like a small bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I am like a diplomat with art." Tsarkova said she often reads religious texts written by her models so as to help understand them and inspire her work, but she also often makes small talk as they sit for hours in front of her.
"They have a very rich world view and they love Russia. We talk about everything, starting with history and ending with my pet owl Rufus," she said. "It's very important to know how they think, to understand their energy," she said. "When I paint the portrait, that energy goes through my heart, my soul and ends up on the canvas."
Tsarkova recently finished a portrait of Benedict, who sits adorned by angels:
"It's as if he gives life to the angels," she said.
Tsarkova said the pope was a "sensitive" character who felt the importance of symbolism in painting "very deeply" and had greatly liked the inclusion of the angels in the final result. "The face is very important and the other objects are also very important since this is how they will be remembered for centuries to come.
"He is an unusual person, he is very sensitive, clever, patient. He is a noble person," she said.
Michael J. O’Loughlin