Call me a Grinch, a killjoy or simply a bad Catholic, but I do not like the official papal portrait presented to Pope Francis last month.
As reported by Catholic Communications of the Sydney Archdiocese:
“The life-size painting portrays the Holy Father against a multi-cultural backdrop of men women and children of all races, ages and cultures, their hands clasped in prayer. The painting, which is now the property of the Vatican Museum and was presented to Pope Francis during the recent Canonisations in Rome of St John Paul II and St John XXIII also features a dove with wings-spread about to alight on the Pontiff’s shoulder…”
The artist is Australian painter and Chinese refugee Jiawei Shen, who also painted the official beatification portrait of Australia’s own Mary MacKillop twenty years earlier.
Looking at Shen’s portrait of the Holy Father no one can dispute the talent of this artist. In addition, and most likely unintentional, Shen effectively captures the essence of the “Francis effect” upon the papacy. The work seems to be a reflection of our reaction to Pope Francis as much as it is about Pope Francis. The portrait reflects in many ways the cult of personality which has emerged out of this current papacy. For over a year now we have seen many Catholics seek to remove our Holy Father from the constraints of the historic papacy, viewing him as a pope unencumbered by things such as rules, rubrics or rituals.
The outpouring of love and affection from the crowd, illustrated so vividly by Shen, no doubt captures perfectly the throngs of faithful who so often greet the Pope. However, it seems, this phenomenon is as much about Francis the superstar, as it is about Francis the Vicar of Christ. It is as though Shen understands that there is no context by which we can understand Francis outside of the adulation of the crowd.
This portrait captures the spirit of those who receive every papal comment, interview or phone call as some de fide statement. Indeed, many seem not to view Pope Francis as the 266th Successor to St. Peter, one bound to tradition just as his predecessors were. It would appear that for many of the faithful today a magisterium of the moment has replaced the binding force of tradition.
In the age of Obama, when hope, change and green Greek columns win over the crowds, should anyone be surprised by a cult of personality papacy? When the faithful fawn over the photo-op or the Tweet, who needs to be troubled with such things as clarity or continuity?
Within the portrait we even see the descent of the dove, traditionally representative of the Holy Spirit. We can also find doves present in other renderings such as that of Italian Baroque painter Carlo Saraceni’s portrait of Pope St. Gregory the Great. However, even Saraceni knew to reserve his dove for a canonized pope. Not so in 2014.
Maybe I am reading too much into this portrait. I do believe it is as much a mirror as it is painting. It is one part papal portrait and one part Rorschach test. Ultimately, as I said earlier, this is a picture about us, and not about the Holy Father.