Study for Velazquez Pope II,
Painted by Francis Bacon (1909-1992),
Oil on canvas,
Executed circa 1961,
© Vatican Museum, Vatican City
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’
Reflection on the painting
In today’s reading we see Jesus personally appointing Peter as leader of the Church. And as the Popes (including Pope Gregory the Great, whose feast we celebrate today) are the successors to St Peter, we come to this painting today by Francis Bacon. Irish born, he is know for his very distinctive, sometimes disturbing raw images, highly emotionally charged. The painting we are looking at is part of the Vatican Collections. Bacon based this painting on the 1650 Portrait of Innocent X by Velazquez (in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), which the artist considered to be ‘one of the greatest paintings in the world’. It was donated to the Vatican Museum by Gianni Agnelli, owner of Fiat motors.
This is probably one of the more ‘tame’ renditions of Bacon’s pope. We see a near black background, stripped away from any distractions, with the figure looking straight at us, just as in the original Velasquez painting. Bacon made a series of these ‘pope paintings’ for over 20 years, coming back and back to the same subject and giving it new interpretations depending on his stage in life and mood. Clearly he was not just producing homages to a picture he loved but had become obsessed with the subject. Many theories exist as to why he kept coming back to this subject. Yes, it probably is an image which iconically conveys power and Bacon’s Catholic roots and a deep down respect for the papal office kept coming to the fore. But he also had deep issues with the Church, resulting in some of these beautiful yet terrifying pictures that reflect his inner conflict.
As the Head of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, the pope is first and foremost the supreme pastor, as successor of St Peter. That means that as a pastor, he represents Christ’s love, concern and care for every single individual. It is easy for us when looking at portraits of all the popes over the years, often lavishly painted in robes, to lose track of this primary mission popes have as pastors. Here the art does not always do justice to their roles, their achievements, their responsibilities, and often over-glorifies and over-beautifies maybe where it shouldn’t. To me, this Bacon portrait brings the tradition of papal portraits back to some simplicity and reality. Saint Peter said ‘What matters is not your outward appearance, but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle gracious kind that God delights in’… In the end, yes, the inner beauty of the popes count, and not the way popes may have outwardly been portrayed in art.
Pope Gregory the Great (540-604AD)... Pray for us.
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