Introducing Natalia Tsarkova - the official papal portrait artist

By Alan Holdren and David Kerr

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Natalia Tsarkova

Her predecessors include El Greco, Raphael and Titian. She is Natalia Tsarkova, the official portrait artist to Pope Benedict XVI.

“The Lord has given me a gift - the gift of painting, being able to bring His message into the world through color. So, this is my job. For me, though, it is as if it is my mission,” the Russian artist told EWTN News at her studio in central Rome.

Tsarkova first came to Rome in the 1990s as a student of fine arts at the Moscow Academy. It was then she first met Pope John Paul II. “The trip was like an award,” she said, “we were received in the Nervi Hall.” So impressed were the papal officials by her work that in 2000 she was asked to paint an official portrait of the Pope to mark his 80th birthday.

“I would have never imagined that I would become the artist who made the official portrait of the Pope. It is the pinnacle for an artist to do such an official portrait.”

After that the Vatican commissions kept coming – another portrait of Pope John Paul II and a painting of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Originally she only planned to stay in Italian capital for three months but “Rome did everything to keep me from leaving.”

“And, I thought, well, this isn’t an everyday thing. It means this is my post, maybe there’s a mission to complete. Certainly, it was divine providence. That is what illuminated my way, and it was right.”

“Because, for every person there are these moments when divine providence indicates the right way, it’s important to understand this in the right moment. I hope I understood.”

And so 40 years after growing up in a poor family in Moscow she now finds herself living and working, appropriately, within sight of the Vatican Museums in Rome. Amid the pungent whiff of oil paints, she shares her artist studio with a pet owl called Rufus. The walls are covered with her paintings. The shelves meanwhile are stacked with papal medals, fossils and other items she has collected over her years. She has just donated a painting to an exhibition marking Pope Benedict’s 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.

“The Pontifical Council for Culture chose this work, which is also very symbolic for me. It is the first work I ever did at the Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow.”

The work depicts an icon of St. Nicholas illuminated by a candle. “There is also a sword as a symbol of protection against ignorance,” she says, “Like the sword of St. Paul. Paul said that the word of the Lord is like a spiritual sword.”

“So, for me it’s as if the Light of the Past, the candle, lit my way and guided me from the time I made this, my first still life.”

Like all Tsarkova's works it is rich in detail and symbolism. The same is true of her official portrait of Pope Benedict XVI completed in 2007.

“A portrait of a Pope is a message. It's not a simple portrait. It's different. So, I try to transmit a special message through the expression on his face, his posture, or the background.”

The painting depicts Pope Benedict in red vestments sitting on the throne of his 19th century predecessor Pope Leo XII where he is surrounded by the angels and the Holy Spirit.

“But in the portrait it’s as if the throne takes on life. The Holy Spirit illuminates the Pope and the world. There are angels that look on with living eyes and the person of the Pope who looks at the world with joy. The Pope dressed in red as a symbol of love and faith.”

She describes the day she personally presented the painting to the Pope as “one of the happiest days of my life.”

And so her work continues. She says her paintings not only make a “little contribution for peace and for love” but also “announce the word of the Lord with colors.”

“As the Pope does so much for the world through his prayer, I would like to do with my brush.”

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