Natalia Tsarkova, an artist from Moscow and the Vatican’s official papal portraitist, is the only woman in the history of art to have painted the official portraits of four popes: John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. These portraits are now kept in the Vatican Museums.
Painting Pope Francis
We remember talking to Natalia in her home studio some years ago, when she just finished the first version of her portrait of Pope Francis. We recall how she proudly showed to us the Pontiff’s portrait. “In this painting, as in the others, I try to go beyond aesthetics to grasp the soul of the pope,” she explained. “This is why I painted Pope Francis holding a lamb with a bloodied hoof, alluding to the tenderness with which this pope speaks to humanity, healing wounds of the soul.”
The Pope’s Humility
Natalia Tsarkova was so fascinated with the Italian-Argentinian pope that on December 17, 2013, on the 77th birthday of the Pontiff, she went to Saint Peter’s Square and waited patiently for the Holy Father to approach the crowd. She wanted to donate a drawing to him, a sketch of the first meeting between Popes Benedict and Francis, a scene that took place on the 23rd of March 2013. This was an important date because—for the first time in history—two popes were in the same place. On that spring day, the new pope went to Castel Gandolfo to visit his predecessor. By then, he already showed everyone proof of his great humility by leaving the pontifical empty and sharing the same kneeler in prayer beside Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
“When I saw that image on TV,” the Russian painter relates with affection “I was struck by that extraordinarily simple gesture, so I made a sketch of that scene, adding the figure of Our Lady of Humility seated on the chair of Pope Francis. Once I finished the drawing, I decided to give it to the Pope. I remember that I couldn’t sleep due to excitement the night before I met him. Finally, when I showed him the sketch, he was moved, and I felt my heart burst with joy.”
Painting the Popes
Being the Vatican’s official papal portraitist, Natalia acknowledges the wonderful opportunity and great responsibility given to her. “Popes don’t pose,” she explains. “Therefore, to draw their figure, you need to go the audiences and synods, to be near them and gather their physical as well as their personality traits. I try to create a lively image with my brushes, not static.” Her customers have always been entranced by her paintings. Even Pope Benedict appreciated his portrait that is now on display at the Vatican Museums. In 2007, Natalia portrayed him wearing a red cape, the color of faith and love, with his left hand on a book, which is the symbol of dialogue with the faithful.