Painter Prepares for First Portrait of Pope Francis

Painter Prepares for First Portrait of Pope Francis

Arts & Faith

The first thing portrait painter Igor Babailov noticed about Pope Francis was his down-to-earth demeanor.

“He wants to be with people,” Babailov said. “He can’t wait to get off his chair and go hug people. He’s adorable and lovable.”

Igor Babailov’s initial sketches of Pope Francis for his upcoming portrait.

The Nashville-based artist traveled to Rome in April of 2014 to sketch Pope Francis for his Vatican-commissioned portrait of the pope. This will be his third portrait of a pope—his portrait of Pope John Paul II hangs in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer house, as per John Paul’s request.

Babailov also painted Pope Benedict, George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Vladimir Putin, and many other leaders, but he feels the portrait of Pope Francis is his biggest responsibility yet.   

“I’m gathering all my experience and everything I have in my lifetime; I have to put all of that together and create the best portrait ever.”

The first sketches of Pope Francis for his Vatican-authorized portrait

The 49-year-old artist is working on a concept for the portrait now, sketching, researching the Pope, and mining anecdotes. Each of the pontiffs he has painted had different personalities, he said, and Babailov hopes to capture Pope Francis’s individuality.

“What makes Pope Francis different from Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II? The portrait goes far beyond photography—it’s applying all that knowledge of that person and what makes that person different from another, and based on that, you create your concept,” he said.

For this piece, Babailov’s training and spirituality will come in handy.

The Russian-born painter created his first portrait at age four: a watercolor drawing of his friend’s father based on a black-and-white photograph. At age nine, Babailov began his formal art education, which he continued for 16 years.

For the rest of his career, Babailov mostly stuck to painting portraits. He enjoyed the challenge of capturing the complexity of the human figure, as well as the person’s personality.

The painter also said his faith affects his artwork.

“To be an artist you want to create that realistic image of the beauty of God’s creation, so I think you have to be spiritual,” he said. “It’s not a formula, you can’t study it; it’s something that’s within.”


For example, when Babailov painted the portrait of Pope Benedict, he included an image of Jesus that he had created eight years prior. He had done many portraits of people, but never of Christ.

“When I did that painting, something incredible was happening in the air,” he said. “I don’t know, I was in a different dimension.”

Babailov also incorporated symbols into his portrait of Pope John Paul II, which he was commissioned to paint in celebration of World Youth Day, which John Paul II founded. The artist included images of youth who represented families from all over the world: an Asian girl holding a camera with a joyful expression; a young priest holding a Bible who represents a new generation with the same values; and a handicapped man who “represents strength through suffering, what John Paul showed us.”

Igor’s portrait of Pope John Paul II.

Babailov chose to depict Pope John Paul II when he was in his 50s and healthy. He said he met the Pope, and will never forget his eyes.

“Those were the most incredible blue eyes I’ve ever seen in my life. They were bluer than the sky. And he wasn’t looking at me, he looked through me. I’ll never forget that.”

For now, he’s working on the portrait of Pope Francis in his Nashville studio that boasts a 30-foot ceiling.

“We’ll never be as good as God,” Babailov said of artists, “but we want to get as close as possible.”