The Power of Papal Portraits
On the evening on which I write, the world has just been introduced to its new Pope. Jorge Bergoglio is to be the 266th Pontiff and under the name of Pope Francis I. The world, including the 1.2 billion Catholics within it, know little about this man, or the future he will map out for the troubled church, beyond the images of the elderly man who has just stepped onto the balcony in St Peter’s Square. The images suggest a resigned and dignified sense of duty; void of nerves but also void of excitement too.
Looking at these images, beamed across every news channel and no doubt drawing the ink of tomorrow morning’s papers, I am struck by the image of papal authority and its transition over the Catholic church’s long and complex history. I am not a Catholic myself. Yet, I think that anyone who believes these images are not important are grossly underestimating.
Not least of all art critics, who should be all too aware of the crucial role the Church has had historically of shaping art, for better or worse, as the Pope has traditionally been one of the biggest commissioners of art. As Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic put it, ‘The Vatican was the most lavish patron of Italian art in its golden age, and the popes led a cultural Renaissance.’
Of course, the instant images of Pope Francis I are a hallmark of the twenty first century. Generations previously had to wait months for an officially commissioned oil painting to come to light and even then, only a small fraction of followers would have had the opportunity to view it. There was no ‘reblog’ option or ‘share’ button.
Yet, what does the modern image of the Pope say within modern society; saturated with the instant image?
We can see in the cultural debris in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s stint, some of the modern usages of power of the papal portrait quite at odds with the oil paintings above.
The power of papal portraiture as imagery struck the twentieth century Anglo Irish painter Francis Bacon. He noted the split between dignified and stoic figures of the past and what he perceived to be a disintegration in the modern pictures. He explores this in his 1953 reimagining of a seventeenth century official portrait.
Bacon sought to side step criticism of his painting, the grotesque nature of which fuelled accusations that Bacon was mocking or attacking the church in the image. He simply denied this saying that he chose the papal subject purely on practical terms of which colour it gave him licence to use. He stated, his subject was “an excuse to use these colours, and you can’t give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner.”
I’m not quite so convinced by Bacon’s argument. A purple garment can be a black berry picker’s smeared apron. Bacon has made the choice to present his subject as screaming and surrounded by a hail of rain or daggers. Such features cannot be quite so innocent as Bacon suggests.
Instead, I would speculate that Bacon’s portrait suggests a tweaking of the papal image to represent a new, more complex image of the institution of which it is face.
Bacon’s painting was completed in 1953 and the Catholic Church’s reception has only gotten more complex since then.
How the new Pope Francis I and the PR powers at the Vatican choose to present him will be interesting to plot over the next years.
So too will be the artistic responses to it.