Michael Noakes must be the only man on earth who can suggest to God’s emissary how he should stand and how high he should raise his hand in blessing.You can see the portrait at the link above.
The British artist found himself in the pontiff’s private quarters at the Vatican earlier this year doing just that as he persuaded the Pope to stand still.
“Please raise your hand, Holy Father, nearer your head,” he heard himself saying. “Would you, Holy Father, move your right foot forward?”
Surrounded by leather-bound antiquarian books and a couple of paintings of saints, he was painting the Pope’s first formal portrait. For Noakes, it was the ultimate blessing as an artist — and as a Catholic.
Speaking to The Times yesterday, he recalled how he had been in Rome last year to unveil a portrait of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at a seminary in Rome.
He said: “At the end of the unveiling, a young Maltese monsignor stationed in the Vatican came over and said simply, ‘Will you paint the Pope for us?’.” The invitation was all the more surprising because the last Pope had steadfastedly refused to pose for any portraits.
A year after the initial invitation Noakes was contacted again by the Vatican and a date was set.
His informal brief was to portray the Pope with his hand raised in blessing or greeting and wearing his crimson cape with fur trim and heavily embroidered stole.
When Archbishop William Levada, the Pope’s head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asked him how long he would need, Noakes replied: “Four, five or six sittings of two and a half hours”. He went grey. He was obviously thinking he’d been in the job for three weeks and couldn’t possibly ask for that sort of commitment of time.
“I’m a professional and I make do with what I’m given, although that’s bound to affect what I can do. I dearly wanted more time.”
Noakes sketched feverishly, trying out different poses and expressions to take back to his studio. He could barely relax enough to make conversation and the Pope, who had no difficulty in standing still, did not ask him any questions about himself or comment on anything beyond the portrait.
The Pope’s only suggestion was that the picture ought to show him with his mouth closed.
For Noakes, he came over as a slightly shy man: “I wanted to imply that. He also smiles a great deal, but it’s an oil painting and is going to be around as part of the records for a long time. So I made him look cheerful, with a degree of gravitas and a bit of a twinkle.”
Noakes's website includes a gallery of some of his previous work.