VATICAN CITY — As the popes’ official painter, Natalia Tsarkova says she tries to capture both the physical reality and the spiritual essence of her subjects.

But the Russian-born artist confessed she was “shocked” just like everyone else when Pope Benedict XVI, who posed twice for her, announced his resignation on Feb. 11.

Since the late 1990s, this Orthodox Christian artist has been the official portraitist of the popes, with her paintings now hanging in Vatican palaces, Roman churches and museums around the world.

In a 2005 exhibition of papal portraits in Washington, hers were the only works by a living artist among the Raffaellos, Caravaggios and Velazquezes.

“Of all the masterpieces from the past five centuries, my paintings were chosen by a group of art experts among the top five pieces of the exhibition,” she proudly recalled in a recent interview.

Tsarkova, who is in her mid-40s but declines to reveal her exact age, was born in Moscow and is a graduate of the prestigious Moscow School of the Arts.

Her small Rome flat, a stone’s throw away from the Vatican, is crammed with her paintings, papal memorabilia and extravagant trinkets.

A red zucchetto, of the kind usually worn by cardinals, sits on top of a fish tank, while Tsarkova’s pet owl, Rufus, flutters around.

“I bought the red skullcap myself,” she said, “as it was becoming too complicated to ask cardinals to lend me one for portraits.”

As an artist, Tsarkova hasn’t always been devoted exclusively to religious subjects. One wall of her studio features the sensuous female nudes she used to paint back in Russia, often with allegorical undertones. “If you look deeply at it, nothing is profane,” she says.

Today, her vivid lifelike portraits hide details that highlight the subject’s work and personality.

Benedict, for example, chose to be portrayed holding a notebook with his speeches, while the angels on his elaborate chair come to life and gaze at him. A dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit bathes him in radiant light.

Tsarkova says her faith and spirituality are key parts of her work, and have proved essential when painting the popes.

The diminutive, slightly eccentric Tsarkova also has a flair for making connections in the rarefied realm of Old World nobility and Vatican hierarchs.

When she arrived in Rome in 1994, to study classical and Renaissance art, she was supposed to stay only for a few months.

“But I started receiving one commission after the other and I kept delaying my departure,” she said. “I think this was a sign; I was destined to paint the pope.”

Tsarkova started painting portraits of aristocrats and cardinals, who eventually introduced her to the Vatican. In 1998, she was asked to paint the official portrait of John Paul II, with whom she says she forged a strong connection.

“He always thanked me in Russian. Even when he was very ill, he would tell me’spasibo’ before we parted.”

Tsarkova also painted several religious works for John Paul, who sometimes hung them in his personal office.

The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic never proved a problem. In fact, she says, “I felt that with my art I could be like a link between the Catholics and the Orthodox.”

Today, one of her portraits of the Polish pope hangs in the Knights of Columbus’ John Paul II Shrine in Washington.

In recent years she had managed to build a strong relationship with the usually shy Benedict and with his entourage. When she wrote and illustrated a children’s book about a goldfish in a pond of the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo, Tsarkova managed to have the pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, write the preface and attend the book launch.

Benedict — himself a key character in the story, as “the man dressed in white” whose return the goldfish anxiously awaits — thoroughly enjoyed the short fable, she said.

But that was before the ailing 85-year old decided to step down from the papacy.

“He is a person of great faith and responsibility,” Tsarkova says. “It’s his sense of responsibility that led him to take this very bold step.”

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