Painter of the Popes

World-Renowned Artist Igor Babailov Discusses Vocation

Igor Babailov is one of the most sought-after portrait painters of our time. He is a world-renowned master of painting and drawing and is an academician of the Russian Academy of Art (established in 1757). Moreover, he is acknowledged by the Vatican curator as a maestro for his portraits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“I believe that being an artist is a profession given by God. Therefore, it is every artist’s moral obligation to glorify the beauty of creation,” he said. 


You are known as a defender of classical Realism. Can you please explain exactly what classical Realism is and how it differs from other visions of art and aesthetics?

Although classical Realism is not really an official term or movement in the history of art, in my mind, it is the kind of contemporary Realism that stands far beyond photography. Nowadays, due to the lack of art education in schools — including, unfortunately, in fine-art programs — a Realistic painting may often be compared to a photograph, and students would even be encouraged to copy photos. But what is a photograph? The photographic image captures only a second of a lifetime: “Say, ‘Cheese,’ and you’ll freeze.” So it may capture a “Kodak moment,” but it may not capture the person or the essence of the subject. A camera is a tool that “sees” and takes everything (what is important and not important at all) with absolute indifference, often distorting the subject, depending on the angle and light that was used to take the picture. Besides, what is the point of copying a ready-made image, produced by a “heartless” tool with no ability to feel, think or select?

Realism, in its classical sense, has a foundation based on the teachings of the “Great Masters” and relies not on the camera, but on the artist’s high artistic skill and ability to draw freehand from life, visual memory or imagination. Such skill may only be acquired through a proper art education and enormous practice of working in direct communication with nature, which then enables the artist to depict creation in its truth and beauty, directly from life and without alterations.


Your portrait of Pope John Paul II is greatly admired. Can you explain why you chose to depict the Holy Father surrounded by children and young people?

Believe, the portrait of Pope John Paul II, was commissioned to me on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his pontificate and in commemoration of World Youth Day. Following the unveiling of the painting in New York, Montreal and Toronto, it was presented to the Holy Father in the Vatican — and until his last days remained with him in the papal apartment. Before he passed away, he decreed that Believe should be displayed in the Vatican’s Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence.

This portrait painting is more than a portrait, in the traditional sense. It represents the eternal values of humanity, such as faith, love, mercy and strength through suffering. In Believe, they are portrayed symbolically through the images of the youth surrounding Pope John Paul II, known as “The People’s Pope,” who also established the famous World Youth Day celebration.

The young people in the painting represent our future. According to Pope John Paul II, the youth are the salt of the earth. Regardless of our geographical and religious backgrounds, we are all children of God. As a family, we must be together in our souls and values.

When I painted this portrait in 2003, the pope was already very ill, aging and battling advanced Parkinson’s disease. I have been asked why I portrayed him younger than he appeared at the time. The answer is simple: Most of our life, we are young and energetic, and we are old only for a short period of time. Therefore, my ultimate goal and aim as an artist was to portray Pope John Paul II the way he would be remembered: energetic, down to earth, much loved and close to people.


In contrast, your portrait of Benedict XVI (also in the Vatican) has the Holy Father depicted in solitary prayer with a statue of Christ behind him. Can you explain why you selected this particular setting?

Every individual is different from one another and has his own distinct characteristic features; so do different pontiffs. The idea of every fine-art portrait is to portray the person’s inner world and individuality. Each portrait requires a specific approach in its concept and composition, characterizing that particular person. Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI was also close to people and much loved by them. He was known as a theological scholar as well. The portrait composition highlights this latter feature.

As an artist with classical formation, I have to make sure that it is very comfortable for the viewer’s eye to travel throughout the painting and to understand it along the way, so I use my knowledge of composition and expertise to lead the viewer’s eye in that direction. On the painting, which I entitled with the words from Scripture — The Way, the Truth and the Life — the pope is depicted in profile wearing Easter-color garments, with his hands in prayer pointing to the sculpturesque figure of the risen Christ. Starting to observe the painting this way, the viewer then also notices the papal coat of arms, symbolizing Benedict’s papacy, above a glimpse of San Pietro’s dome in the background. Then the eye moves through the images of three candles that symbolize the Holy Trinity and shed light on the open Bible below. Having made a full circle through the entire canvas, the eye continues its journey around the painting and its details.

The painting was unveiled to the Holy Father in the Easter season and upon his official visit to the United States. Providentially, the theme of his speech to the thousands of spectators at Yankee Stadium was also “The Way, the Truth and the Life.” My portrait of Pope Benedict XVI is in the collection of the Vatican; and in 2010, the pope personally selected my painting of him to represent his papacy in the international “Vatican Splendors” museum tour, where it hung alongside the works of Michelangelo, Bernini, Giotto and other masters of the Renaissance. 


You are currently working on a portrait of Pope Francis. Can you tell us something about your work on this portrait and the vision of the man and his papacy you are trying to visualize?

The portrait of Pope Francis is my third papal portrait for the Vatican, after those of Pope John Paul II, now a saint, and Pope Benedict XVI.  As part of my portrait procedure, I requested to meet with the pontiff. The Vatican provided me with a special sitting in very close proximity to the Pope, so I could draw my sketches — studies of likeness, character and personality — in preparation for the portrait. In a portrait process, the first important step is the portrait concept, which predetermines a certain composition most appropriate for the portrait subject. Being next to Pope Francis, like in my meetings with the two previous popes, I noticed a common feature they all shared: Just like the other popes, he radiated a similar, incredibly powerful “holy” energy; and similar to them, he had his own very humble demeanor.

As an individual, Pope Francis is, of course, also different from his predecessors. His portrait will show his uniqueness, as well as incorporate a number of symbols characterizing his personality and his pontificate. Since a great portrait painting is more than just an outer likeness, it explores the inner world of the person, his ideals, values and beliefs. It is a visual record that tells a story for future generations to remember, refer to and treasure. 


Joseph Pearce is director of the Center for Faith and Culture

at Aquinas College in

Nashville, Tennessee.





Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.