How a Chinese Propaganda Artist Painted the Pope


Once upon a time, the Catholic Church was one of the greatest patrons of art, music and architecture in the Western world – and many of the artists employed were not faithful Catholics. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, whose “The Last Supper” is one of the most revered icons of religious art, was rumored to have chosen his young male pupils as much for the length of their eyelashes as for their talent.

Or, that may be just stories, if we are to believe Leonardo himself:

Whoso curbs not lustful desires puts himself on a level with the beasts. One can have no greater and no lesser mastery than that which one has over one’s self. . . . It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.

Either way, near the end of his life, Leonardo did receive Catholic instruction and sacraments, but during Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_The_Last_Supper_high_reshis productive years, faith didn’t seem to be important to him.

Nevertheless, he was a genius of his age, and the Church hired him. To demand that an artist share the religious or political beliefs of those commissioning his or her work would have denied mankind many of its greatest creative treasures.

An artist’s work belongs to the world, but an artist’s soul is his own.

So, it should not be too shocking that the man who recently painted Pope Francis’ portrait is not only not a Catholic, but became famous during Mao’s Cultural Revolution for painting Chinese soldiers for the benefit of the propaganda efforts of the People’s Liberation Army.

Shen Jiawei was a teenager when Mao Zedong launched his assault on the intellectual life and cultural legacy of China in the mid-1960s. Eventually, Shen lost his faith in Communism and, while in Australia on an English-study visa, he was appalled at the massacre of students during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

According to an AP story published at Yahoo! News, Shen remained in Australia, where his 1994 portrait of 19th-century nun Mary McKillop, who became the nation’s first saint, captured the attention of Church officials.

Shen got the commission to paint Francis in August 2013, just a few months after Francis became pope. Francis didn’t sit for the portrait, but the Vatican offered up official photos for Shen to use.

Shen painted Francis with outstretched arms, a white dove about to land on his shoulder. He is surrounded by people Shen painted from the photos of crowds at papal audiences, slipping in an image of his daughter for fun. There are several birds in the painting, homage to Francis’ namesake, the nature-loving St. Francis of Assisi.

“When the pope approved this project and they sent me the photos, (they said) the pope wants a painting with people together,” Shen said.

But he doesn’t see himself as a propagandist for the Church, saying to AP writer Nicole Winfield:

“I stopped my propaganda work in the 1970s,” he said, laughing. “Even church commission work, this is part of normal artwork, part of commission and part of history.”

The portrait — pictured above — based on photos of Francis and crowds at Vatican audiences, now hangs in a villa in the Vatican Gardens.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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