0 Love It
Save it

A brief history of the pope in art

TONY surveys the pontiff as icon, from ancient Rome’s reverential frescoes to today’s irreverent street art.

Photograph: Courtesy the Osservatore Romano

4th-century portrait of Saint Peter from catacombs of St. Tecla, Rome
Francis I is the latest in a long line stretching back to Saint Peter, who, according to the Catholic Church, was the first pope. This is one of the earliest-known images of the apostle, to whom Jesus is believed to have entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Photograph: The Getty Center, Los Angeles

Rogier van der Weyden, The Dream of Pope Sergius, late 1430s
This painting, attributed to the Netherlandish master, is considered to be among the first portraying a pope wearing his ceremonial tiara. Believed to be part of a lost altarpiece from the Church of St. Gudula in Brussels, the scene depicts the moment an angel informs Pope Sergius that Lambert, bishop of Maastritch, has been killed. Lambert became Saint Lambert after he was martyred in 701 for defending the sanctity of marriage.

Photograph: Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Botticelli, St Sixtus II, 1481
When one thinks of the Sistine Chapel, one naturally recalls Michelangelo’s great ceiling, but this portrait by Botticelli, one of 24 images of early popes, also decorates the space. It’s an imaginary rendering of the pontiff who was martyred in Rome in 258 during Emperor Valerian’s persecution of Christians.

Photograph: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Raphael, Pope Leo X with two cardinals, 1518-1519
Raphael’s work is notable for its realistic depiction of the pope whose sale of indulgences—basically, tickets to heaven proffered by the church to raise funds for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica—sparked the Reformation, led by Martin Luther.

Photograph: Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650
This likeness was created sometime during the Spanish painter’s sojourn in Italy between 1649 and 1651, and is generally viewed as one of the finest portraits in art history.

Photograph: Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, Windsor, U.K.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Pope Pius VII, 1819
This painting of the pope who was briefly sent into exile by Napoleon is arguably one of the last in Western art history to accord the subject a measure of deference.

Photograph: Des Moines Art Center

Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953
Perhaps the most famous of several “screaming popes” that Bacon based on the famed portrait by Velázquez, this image is often described as a religious painting for atheists.


Fernando Botero, Pope Leo X (after Raphael), 1964
Raphael’s sitter is transformed into a mordant baby by the Colombian painter known for his pudgy-grotesque figurative style.


Andrés Serrano, Red Pope (Part I, Part II, Part III), 1990
Serrano is infamous for his controversial takes on Catholic subjects, most notably his Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. In this sequence, a souvenir sculpture of Pope John Paul II being enveloped in blood gets a slightly gentler treatment.


Yue Minjun, The Pope, 1997
The face contorted in creepy laughter is the signature flourish of this Chinese artist, and shows up here in an homage to Bacon’s popes.


Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999
Last seen in the Italian bad-boy artist’s 2011 Guggenheim retrospective, La Nona Ora (“The Ninth Hour” in Italian), a satire of divine judgment, shows Pope John Paul II being struck down by a meteorite.

Photograph: ©2004 Pineapple Publishing and Consulting

Greg Metz, Cow Pope Mobile at the 2002 Houston Art Car Parade
The Pope’s ride, famously domed with bulletproof glass, gets a bovine makeover in this rolling installation by Texas artist Greg Metz.

Photograph: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; founding collection, contributed by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Pope John Paul II, Fred Hughes and Andy Warhol, 1980
It’s somewhat ironic that Andy Warhol, the Pope of Pop, never made the pontiff a subject of his work. But then, he was a devout Catholic, so it probably makes sense. In this picture, he greets John Paul II like any other member of the faithful.

Photograph: Collection of Philippe Cohen

Joanna Rajkowska, I Will Never Be The Pope. I Will Never Be Andy Warhol., 2000
The image of Warhol meeting John Paul II inspired this work by Polish artist Joanna Rajkowska. It’s a lenticular photo, and depending on where you stand, it shows Rajkowska’s face superimposed onto Warhol and the pope. (See also the following two images.)

Photograph: Collection of Philippe Cohen

Joanna Rajkowska, I Will Never Be The Pope. I Will Never Be Andy Warhol., 2000

Photograph: Collection of Philippe Cohen

Joanna Rajkowska, I Will Never Be The Pope. I Will Never Be Andy Warhol., 2000

Photograph: André Morin, ©Yan Pei-Ming, ADAGP, Paris, 2009

Yan Pei-Ming, Pape Jean-Paul II, 2005
This Chinese figurative expressionist, who focuses on images of the famous and powerful, paints a rather pensive, if not worried, John Paul II.


Zane Lewis, Purging Pope, 2007
“Drip painting” takes on bulimic connotations in this image of the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Photograph: Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Mark Wallinger, I am Innocent, 2010
Wallinger, a British conceptualist, puts a new spin—literally—on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in this motorized installation. Dangling from a wire is a panel printed front and back with mirror views of the Spanish Old Master’s seminal work. When the piece starts to twirl, it creates a double vision of the pope. (See also the following image.)

Photograph: Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Mark Wallinger, I am Innocent, 2010


Miriam Jonas, Polka Popes, 2011
Berlin artist Miriam Jonas sculpted relief portraits of fictional popes out of Play-Doh, framing each inside an empty sardine can before arranging them all into a colorful wall installation. (See also the following image.)


Miriam Jonas, Polka Popes, 2011, detail


Street art of Pope Benedict XVI, Stockholm, Sweden
The facade of Katarina Västra school, which was destroyed by fire in 2003, hosts a highly unsympathetic view of the former pontiff.

Photograph: Courtesy Emilia’s world

Street art of Pope John Paul II in Kraków, Poland
The Polish Pope is seen deep in prayer in this wall mural dating from 2007.