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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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