I felt, although being in the presence of more than 100,000 people, that only he and I were present.  At that moment, the Pope looked straight into my eyes and I said, ‘My name is Juan Manuel Delgado, I’m a young artist.  I have come from Costa Rica to give you this portrait, with all of my heart, affection and admiration.’

This photo is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado. It was taken by a Vatican Photographer.
This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado.

The intimacy of the exchange between Pope Francis and the artist Juan Manuel Delgado would be difficult to imagine had it not been documented by a Vatican photographer. Seriously, can you imagine yourself in this situation?   You’re humbly offering a portrait that you’ve painted to perhaps the most beloved Pope in the memory of the Catholic Church and His Holiness is looking straight into your eyes.

Whatever your personal beliefs, there is a consensus that Pope Francis is one of the most influential people in the world today. He is on the side of good in a world that has gone mad. When he is not officiating as Pontiff; he brokers peace between hostile countries, evades the Swiss Guard in ordinary dress to minister to the needy, and touches everyday people with his spellbinding humility.  Pope Francis is loved the world over by people of every age.  Finally, young adults like Delgado are moved by the way that His Holiness is transforming the world.

This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado and was taken by the Vatican's photographer
This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado.

During our conversation the Pope always looked at my eyes. After several minutes staring at the portrait, seeing his own reflection, he extended his hand, and I said, ‘please bless everyone in Costa Rica. Bless me with the strength to believe in my dreams.’  He gave me a hug, and although it lasted only a few seconds, I felt that it lasted much longer.  I felt the greatest sense of peace as if I were in heaven.  He smiled and said, ‘thank you very much for your kind gesture.’ The hug of His Holiness Pope Francis was one of the greatest moments of my life.

The exchange between Pope Francis and the artist is disarming.  Delgado’s words, along with the pictures, reveal that he had the presence of mind to jump into the ocean of Pope Francis’s mercy when the big moment arrived.  He wore his heart on his lapel courageously asking His Holiness for blessings for his family, his country, and strength to believe in himself.  Pope Francis revealed the infinite power of kindness by concentrating his full attention and affection on this earnest young admirer.

My decision to paint a portrait of His Holiness Pope Francis is based on my admiration for His simplicity and humility, as a source of inspiration to the world.  At the same time, this painting is a gift in gratitude for being the first Latin American Pope in the history of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church.

This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado and was captured by a Vatican photographer.
This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado

Delgado’s inspiration to paint the Pope’s portrait grew out of his admiration for His Holiness’s humility, simplicity, and his gratitude to the first Pope from Latin America in the history of the Catholic Church.  Of course, the concrete project required a fair amount of planning and a bit of red-tape.   He discovered a few miracles along the way.

For starters, when Delgado sought advice about from the Pope’s sister, Maria Elena Bergoglio; she replied with blessings, encouragement, and direction.  Her advice eventually led Delgado to a meeting with Apostolic Nuncio, Msgr. Pierre Nguyen Van Tot.   During the meeting at the Nunciature in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, Delgado was able to discuss his project and receive specific guidelines for portraying the Pope.

I always start painting the eyes first, and then I started to feel a dialogue emerging with the Pope as His facial expressions began to take shape.  As more color was added, the more I felt a connection with Him.

This photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado. It was taken by Vatican photographer.
This Photograph is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado.

Delgado’s feeling of connection with the Pope while he was painting the portrait touches upon an intriguing aspect of the power of an image to provoke an emotional response.   In The Power of Images, David Freedberg examines how the representation of eyes spark a response.  He argues; These are the clearest .. indications of the vitality of the represented figure.  The livelier the eyes seem the livelier the body. In The Destruction of Art, Dario Gamboni credits him with elevating the discussion saying; Freedberg valorized .. elements and modes of ‘response’ to images that had .. been neglected, repressed or condemned.  

The artist’s recollection speaks not only to the concept of life evident in the eyes but also implies a sense of communion.  He drew upon the Pope’s vitality to create a portrait that captured his sublime likeness and personality.  The hyper-realistic style, and skillful use of chiaroscuro,  somewhat resembles paintings by Baroque masters expert at portraying dramatic moments.  The contrast between the dark background and the light radiating from His Holiness creates a sense of hushed drama.

Delgado’s paintings point to art history in other ways.  His portrait of King Simeon II of Bulgaria makes him the second youngest artist in history to have painted a monarch since Velasquez’s portrait of King Phillip IV in 1623, at age 24.  Delgado’s art is rooted in tradition in an era quick to dismiss the value of continuity.

It took Delgado about one month to paint the portrait.  Afterwards, he emailed a picture of the finished painting to the Nuncio in San Jose, who, in turn, invited him to display the portrait publicly at the Nunciature on August 15, 2013.  On September 10, the artist received a call from the Nunciature saying that the artist received a letter from the Vatican.

The first time I read the letter and saw that my proposal to present the painting to Pope Francis was granted, I was extremely happy and very emotional.  Of all the struggles I’ve had as an artist, I kept working hard, and receiving this great opportunity was an incredible experience for me and to be able to represent my country was such a great honor.

Again, can you imagine yourself in such a situation?  Indeed, the artist’s narrative indicates that it was an emotional moment for him.  The portrait represented more than a likeness; it represented Pope Francis; the humble missionary who is transforming the world with his simple goodness.

Stamp commemorating the first anniversary of Pope Francis's Pontificate.
This Photo is courtesy of Juan Manuel Delgado.

The artist received another surprise while he was in Rome. The Post Office in Costa Rica had seen him presenting the portrait to Pope Francis on television and was interested in issuing a limited edition stamp to commemorate the first anniversary of Pope Francis’s Pontificate.

This Photograph is courtesy of Juan Delgado.
This Photograph is courtesy of Juan Delgado.

They subsequently announced a limited issue postage stamp, entitled The Pope Francis: a year of the Pontificate, to mark the anniversary.  It issued 15,000 stamps on March 19, 2014, with a picture of the portrait that the artist personally presented the previous year at the Vatican.  Predictably, the limited edition sold out.  The stamp would have afforded everyday people with their piece of heaven, and an opportunity to engage with His Holiness, Pope Francis, the sublime missionary from Latin America.

This photograph is courtesy of the Juan Manuel Delgado

Juan Manuel Delgado knows his place in art history.  His representational style asks different kinds of questions than most contemporary art that is conceptual in nature.  Representing a sacred person like Pope Francis would raise questions about what would qualify as the appropriate style for a person celebrated far and wide.   Delgado’s representation conveys his humble reverence for the Pope while simultaneously emphasizing His Holiness’s sparkling vitality.  The artist appears to be a master at marking monumental moments in time.

I confess, the artist’s skill for portraying historically significant moments with just the right tone has sparked a secret wish that Delgado paints Barack Obama’s portrait.  Like many others, I’m dreading the day that this American President leaves office.  Obama has transcended many boundaries, created lasting change in our country, and in our relationship with others.  Although there are many excellent American portrait painters, and probably few better photographers than Pete Souza,  Delgado, I believe,  would translate President Obama’s likeness into an official portrait that would resonate across time.

For more information about the artist, please visit; www.facebook.com/pintorjuanmanueldelgado



Sotheby’s installation of Mati Russo’s emotive, mixed-media art echoes the city’s commitment to creativity as an ongoing community venture that is continually growing in unexpected directions.
Mati Russo's art installation at Sothby's, photo copyrighted by Brenda Haroutunian
“World’s Apart,” and “Forgive Quickly,” by Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

I’m a big fan of Mati Russo.  For starters, I’m impressed by her ability to touch on the suffering of the human condition with art that evokes constructive contemplation, rather than fear, or other negative alternatives.  The artist’s technique for expressing gratitude with multi-media painting composed of disposed items that have lost their first shine strikes me as especially thoughtful.  Finally, I love her color and charisma.  So, when I heard that Sotheby’s had installed her mixed-media painting at their new office here in Pasadena, I was eager to see her work up close.

"Worlds Apart," Mati Russo Art, Sotheby's Pasadena. This photograph is copyrighted to Brenda Haroutunian
“Worlds Apart,” by Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

I was also curious about Sotheby’s response to the artist, and her creativity.  Jeff Maynard, the Vice President, and Brokerage Manager, of the Pasadena office, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.  When I asked him what he most liked about Russo’s brand of creativity, he said that he was impressed by the work that he found on her website, and in her studio. Maynard added that part of the design aspect of our new Pasadena real estate office was to create a museum-like space to highlight local artist and their works.  When he shared his findings with Bradley Cooper,  Senior Vice President of Marketing, enthusiasm, and support for an installation of Russo’s art at the Pasadena office solidified.

"Tantric Garden" by artist Mati Russo. Photograph copyrighted to Brenda Haroutunian
“Tantric Garden,” by Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

Russo, in turn, said that she was overjoyed when Maynard first asked to show one of her pieces, later deciding to furnish the entire office with her art.  She’s overjoyed that her art would be seen by new audiences.   Russo was pleased with the idea of sharing her art with clients searching for new houses and resonant art that would transform them into homes.

The installation was composed solely of abstract and decorative works. Russo said that Sotheby’s wanted to add color and beauty to their office while avoiding subjects that had the potential to evoke an unwelcome response.  She added; there are no political pieces reminiscent of artists such as Basquiat.  Those are displayed elsewhere and in my home.

Mati Russo art, Sotheby's Pasadena. Photograph copyrighted to Brenda Haroutunian
“Amaretto,” by Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

If Sotheby’s was careful to select a collection that wasn’t incendiary, they have nevertheless showcased art meant to evoke an emotional response.   After September 11, 2001, the artist shifted direction portraying subject matter for the purpose of stimulating thought and reflection, rather than appealing solely to the senses.   Maynard appreciates the thoughtfulness in Russo’s process.  He said; For me, the beauty in Mati’s work is the thought process she brings to it. Psychological states are often an important subject in her art.  Paintings like Forgive Quickly and Worlds Apart speak to human vulnerability, along with joy, gratitude, and compassion.  If Sotheby’s purpose was to fill its office with beautiful art, it has also included work that urges it’s audience to think and respond.

Mati Russo's art at Sotheby's Pasadena. Photograph copyrighted to Brenda Haroutunian
“Laguna Beach,” by Mati Russo, at Sotheby’s Pasadena

On a whim, I asked Maynard what he would ask the artist to make if he could commission her to create a monument to donate to the city.  Although he was reluctant to dictate a creative direction for a hypothetical project, he nevertheless leaned towards something that emphasized the city’s impressive history.  Maynard’s answer is appropriate.  Russo’s savvy installation of serious and vibrant mixed-media painting reflects the city’s  history of engagement and innovation with the arts and literature.

So, I asked myself instead what I would ask the artist to make if I had such an opportunity.  Eventually, I decided on a series of paintings in industrial frames,  placed at some of the city’s driest and dustiest locations.  Russo’s evocative, colorful compositions would be welcome, for example, along Eaton Canyon’s trails during the hot summer months.

Mati Russo galleries and art. Photograph copyrighted to Brenda Haroutunian
“Purple Haze,” by Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

The city’s choice museums, educational opportunities aimed at every age group and skill-set, along with events such as Artnight and One City, One Story,  present gratifying opportunities for exploration and growth. Sotheby’s has nodded to Pasadena’s traditions with an artist who is innovative and perpetually growing in exciting new directions

Of course, Sotheby’s has been in the news lately.  Everyone seems to be chattering about recent shakeups. There is general agreement that these are uncertain times for Sotheby’s.  Nevertheless, the installation in the local office acknowledged that this diverse community takes art seriously.  It’s yet another opportunity to view choice art, not in a museum or a gallery, but rather a savvy business space that has integrated the artist’s work with gallery-like flair.

Mati Russo Art, pictured copyrighted to Brenda Haroutnian
closeup of “Zap,” Mati Russo, Sotheby’s Pasadena

The city’s creative enterprises still surprise me nearly twenty years after settling in this small town.  So, I’d like to present opinion pieces about this local culture, while continuing my research on the contemporary artist in the coming months.  The city of Pasadena, with its culture of urging the community to engage with the world around it, is endlessly unique and refreshing.   I’m going to grab my camera and find secret pockets of creativity, explore what the community is interested in thinking about and making.