ROME — What does one give the Pope for Christmas? Somehow appliances seem inappropriate, altarpieces and reliquaries have been done to the point of overkill, and food, cash and other sundries will be immediately regifted.
It takes a truly creative mind to come up with the perfect papal present.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that the best pontifical stocking stuffer was produced by Rome’s reigning queen of painting, Natalia Tsarkova, papal portraitist to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as executrix of the only official portrait of the short-lived Pope John Paul I.
This Christmas, however, instead of using her formidable talent to compose monumental canvases of men and events that shaped the world, Tsarkova gave the Pope (and us) a chance to see through the eyes of a child in her fairy-tale book Il Mistero del Piccolo Stagno (“The Mystery of the Little Pool”), released by the Vatican’s own publishing house on Dec. 11.
The brightest stars of the Vatican firmament assembled for the presentation of the volume. Msgr. Georg Gänswein, recently named prefect of the Papal Household, and professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, joined Saverio Petrillo, director of the papal villa of Castel Gandolfo, and Father Giuseppe Costa, head of the Vatican Publishing House, to celebrate the latest oeuvre of this petite Russian artist who herself possesses a disarmingly childlike air.
Prelates, scholars and administrators all turned their gaze to the little pool in Castel Gandolfo, where Tsarkova’s story unfolds.
The painter’s opulent palate, much admired in her altarpieces and portraits, and one of the gifts of Russian training, draws the reader into the waters of one of the fountains of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, where we meet Bianco, a young goldfish born in these quiet waters. Bianco loves the light and colors reflected in his pool as if he lives within a Renoir painting.
In his life of riotous color, Bianco is one day struck by the presence of white, the reflection of the statue of Mary gracing the edge of the pool. Both the fish and his father are drawn daily to the still, luminous figure.
One day, a second figure in white appears before the statue; it is Benedict XVI, who has come to pray the Rosary. Afterwards, the Pope stops to feed the fish with breadcrumbs. From this day forth, Bianco lives in expectation of the Pope’s visits.
Tsarkova reveals a side of Benedict that the media, with all of their sophisticated cameras and expensive analysts, have never been able to glimpse. Bianco sees a quiet figure who prays for all of us in the solitude of the papal villa. He knows the gentle man who loves nature and its creatures. The luminous presence of the Pope brings both joy and solace to those who look with the eyes of innocence.
When the Pope departs the villa to return to Rome in the fall, Bianco feels bereft, much like we Romans feel when the Pope leaves for the summer or the world felt when John Paul II died. But the fish is comforted that the figure in white will always return. We are never without a Holy Father for long, the story reminds us; for 2,000 years the successors of St. Peter have prayed for us and will continue to do so.
Tsarkova’s glorious images that illustrate the volume evoke a sense of peace; only the brilliant tracings of fiery ginger or glowing opal convey the intensity of Bianco’s devotion.
For the moment, the book is only in Italian, but this story is best told with pictures, as Bianco gives us this intimate, child’s-eye view of Christ’s Vicar on earth.
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program.
A new paperback version of her book The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this fall.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.