SAINT JOHN PAUL II
1983 – 160 x 133
In the case of a Pope, though the Bishop of Rome has, at
most periods of history, exercised secular as well as
spiritual sovereignty, this particular problem does not
arise. The Pope has no private image. If he were to be
portrayed in tweeds the image would no longer be that
of the Pope. In this case, therefore, there can be no
complete informality: the artist has only the degree of
formality to select. But the artist has enough problems
of a different kind. He must always convey something
of the spirituality of the sitter, as well as fitting degree
of majesty, humanity, sympathy and benevolence. And
irrespective of which aspect of their subject’s mission
the artist chooses to emphasise, a decision must always
be made between a number of practical alternatives. Is
the Pope to be shown seated, or standing; alone, or in
company; indoors or out; from the front, profile or three quarters;
perhaps with his body facing in one direction,
his gaze in another? And how is the Holy Father to be
illuminated; from above or from one side or the other;
or from the front?
In Durand’s life size portrait John Paul II sits at an
angle and turns his head. He is looking at the spectator
and appears to be about to speak. His left wrist is on the
knob of the throne, the hand continuing upwards; the
line of the forearm in a gesture between a blessing and
an admonition. The noonday light falls directly from
overhead. It highlights and shadows starkly the Holy
Father’s face and hands, his massive forehead and
furrowed brow – his ferments, with a heightened realism.
But in the abstracted background its trajectory is
suggested schematically rather than realistically by a
series of triangles of different shades of white. The
suggestion of timelessness thus conveyed is emphasised
by the lack of any furniture or walls in the setting, and
by the coat of arms suspended heraldically with no
visible foundations. This is a Pope of the twentieth
century but still the Pope.
The fact that there are probably more portraits in existence of previous Popes than of the holders of any other office may be seen as a help to the artist or a deterrent, depending on the way he looks at it. The thought of Raphael, Titian or Velasquez peering over his shoulder might deter any modern portraitist. But if he looks at their portraits for inspiration – without thoughts of emulation – he can still profit by their ideas and solutions as well as from their occasional lapses.
Durand has said that in painting John Paul II he had in mind Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II in the National Gallery, which was the first to adopt the three-quarter length, oblique-angled seated pose which has become almost standard ever since, and he has also studied all the greatest papal portraits of a later age. I do not think it useful that an art historian, another, or myself, should take it upon himself to attempt to interpret an artist’s intention. The work itself should make them clear. But it is indeed apparent to anyone who looks at Durand’s profound likeness of consummate physiological insight, that despite his study of his illustrious predecessors he has produced something original, a study in whites – not reds – very much of our own time. Durand has, it seems to me, struck a nice balance between the traditional and the contemporary, between the literal and the symbolic and between the official and the personal. The result should prove moving to all faiths.