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A view from the Vatican Gardens, Copyright Igor Babailov

ZENIT  -  The World Seen From Rome

Reviving the Renaissance; A President With Leadership

Russian Portrait Painter Spearheads Artistic Revolution

ROME, SEPT. 11, 2008 ( ) -  Contemporary art often presents a dismal picture. Either excessively subjective or simply an exercise in bad taste, modern efforts have offered many reasons for critics to be concerned about the state of art today.


But amid galleries cluttered with embalmed sheep and/or glazed garbage, art still gives signs of life. Several artists today still try to combine craftsmanship, vision and respect for the viewer in their works.


Painter Igor Babailov spearheads the recent revolution to a return to an art that values centuries of meaning and tradition. Born in 1965 in the town of Glazov, Russia, Babailov began his formal training at the age of nine, the same age as Raphael.


Precociously accomplished like his Renaissance forerunner, Babailov entered the elite Surikov College of Fine Arts at the age of 13 after winning a nationwide competition. He ultimately received his master's of fine arts from this world-famous school.


Babailov came to North America almost 20 years ago where his talents did not go unnoticed. Today he is renowned as one of America's foremost portrait painters, in demand among world leaders, entertainment celebrities and CEOs.


Some of Babailov's finest works, however, draw their inspiration from Rome. In 2004, Babailov produced a portrait of Pope John Paul II, titled "BELIEVE," and this year he unveiled his portrait of Benedict XVI during the papal visit to Washington.


In return, the appreciative Pope received Babailov and his wife at Castel Gandolfo last month.


Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Igor Babailov about his work, his inspiration and his portrayal of world leaders.


Babailov began by discussing his image of John Paul II, today in the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.


The portrait shows the young, strong Pope of 1978 instead of the ailing John Paul II of 2004. Babailov explained that "a portrait immortalizes a person for future generations. In Rome, around the Vatican, most of the gift shops showed postcards of the first years of his pontificate, because that's how people want to remember him."


So in the years to come, when John Paul II is declared a saint, Babailov's image will project the energy and vibrancy of John Paul II from his first day in the papal throne.


Babailov commemorates one of the pontiff's greatest achievements, World Youth Day, which the Holy Father founded in 1986. "He was a people's Pope, so I wanted to make a composition where the Pope would not be alone but surrounded by youth," the artist explained. 


Babailov's John Paul II is certainly placed in a universal setting. Over the Pope's left shoulder, a young couple represents future generations of Catholics.


"Under the couple" explained the painter, "there is an African girl praying for a better future, while on the bottom left, I put a Philippine child -- since the Pope drew the largest crowd in history when he went to the Philippines." The artist chose to paint her in red, "as the symbol of heart and love and holding a candle for light and joy of faith."


Rounding out the composition, Babailov added a young priest to represent the generation of new vocations, and a Pakistani girl hugging an image of the Blessed Mother, the Pope's lifelong devotion. 


On the lower right, he painted a Missionary of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, tending to a disabled person. Babailov, gave the wheelchair-bound figure particular prominence noting that "they are an inspiring example of strength through suffering, like John Paul II himself at the end of his life."


Babailov says he painted the Pope as "really a Holy Father, a father to all these people from all over the world, who guides with love."


The source of the Pope's strength is visible in the background with the youth day cross, the 12-foot cross that John Paul II entrusted to the world's youth in 1984 with the words "I entrust to you the sign of this Jubilee Year: the cross of Christ! Carry it throughout the world as a symbol of Christ's love for humanity, and announce to everyone that only in the death and resurrection of Christ can we find salvation and redemption."


The Russian artist painted the sky above the cross a deep and menacing red, to represent Christ's suffering and crucifixion, but above the Pope, he opened up to bright light.


Babailov packs his painting with symbols, explaining that "painting should not just be a representation of a likeness, it should also have a message, more than what you see, it should be readable." He sees his work as "a kind of evangelizing."


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The portrait of Pope Benedict with Christ seems to have been engineered by Divine Providence.


Igor Babailov met Benedict XVI for the first time in 2006, and had started to work on a portrait of the newly elected Pope. 


The Russian artist says he was immediately drawn to Benedict, referring to him as "one of my heroes. He is very truthful and faithful to his mission as Christ's Vicar on earth and never allows his concern for public opinion to cloud his dedication to the truth."


After painting many world leaders, Babailov has several ideas of what makes a great leader. "Leaders are very straight and true in a world where many people live in a kind of gray zone where they are always compromised in their attempts to retain popularity," he observed.


Babailov was delighted when he discovered he would unveil his portrait during the Pope's trip to Washington on the day of Benedict's birthday. The artist recounted his pleasure at being part of the visit, as "there is a huge population of Catholics in the United States and the visit turned out to be such a success. Everybody loved him."


Unlike the populous image of John Paul II, the portrait of Benedict focuses on the Pope's scholarly qualities, recognizing his Christocentric focus by putting a luminous statue of the Risen Christ before him.


"The theme that came to me was the Way of Truth and Life," explained Babailov, "and the composition follows that theme. The Pope's hands folded in prayer lead to the figure of Christ, which then redirects the gaze toward the dome of St. Peter's and to candles and an open Bible. It is a continuous circle that invites the eye to move comfortably around it."


Babailov describes the portrait as "a psychological study, a work that tries to capture the inner man as well as the outer appearance."


After having studied the Pope through photographs, Babailov was able to compare his likeness with the living image of the Pontiff when he met the Holy Father last August. He relates that "it was a real blessing to meet with the Pope, an honor, but also a responsibility to represent what one has experienced." 


"Comparing the work with the subject" Babailov said, "it is a satisfaction to see that you have captured the truth."


The painter explained that in good art, however, "You don't just do it for yourself but to transmit information to the next generations." 


Discussing contemporary art, Babailov noted, "Most modernists talk a lot. They have complicated explanations of their philosophy and ideas; they paint their thoughts for themselves." 


"Painting should educate and enrich," continued the Russian artist. "Modern painting merely offers a split-second emotion: You see it, you have an instant reaction and move on. Instead, real painting can be looked at over and over again and each time it has something new."


When Babailov discusses art, he uses terms like composition, tonal contrasts and chiaroscuro, the language of Raphael, Giotto and Fra Angelico, which sadly for many artists today, has gone the way of ancient Greek.


Babailov anchors his artistic vision in technical skills he has been honing since the age of four. When he packs his murals with figures, he is as attentive to their arrangement as any 15th-century Florentine. His craftsmanship was so admired as to earn him a stint teaching at the Florence Academy of Art in 1999.


"Painting requires skill," Babailov emphasizes. "Photography is created by the camera, and one cannot fully control what the camera sees. So people take many photographs because several must always be discarded." 


Echoing the "Treatise on Painting" by Leonardo da Vinci, Babailov firmly states that "his first principle is painting from life, to look beyond the photographic image to what the subject can convey on a deeper level."


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A new project has fired the imagination of Igor Babailov. He is preparing a portrait of the first president of the United States, George Washington.


"I live in this beautiful country and I have learned its history," the painter explained. "It is a part of me. I wanted to portray this great leader."


The artist says he was inspired by Michael and Jana Novak's recent book, "Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country." 


"A lot of scientific studies using modern equipment have tried to figure out what George Washington actually looked like," noted Babailov, "but Michael Novak inspired me to look at the deeper aspects of the first president. In this work I am not only trying to capture the likeness, but a new Washington as a spiritual leader, as well as military general"


"Many contemporary authors try to claim that George Washington didn't believe in God, saying that he had little more than a vague spirituality," explained Babailov. "But Washington himself wrote that morality and religion were necessary for the country." 


The painter is working on a life size portrait stating that "George cannot be squeezed into commercial gallery size. He was more than a military and political figure but also a spiritual leader, and gifted with the extraordinary humility common to the greatest of leaders." 


To model his likeness, Babailov went to Mt. Vernon to see Washington's oldest portrait, the clay bust by Jean Antoine Houdon made in 1786 as a sketch for his grand marble statue of 1791.


This clay study is kept at Mt. Vernon and it is the first thing to greet visitors when they cross the threshold. "Meet the General himself," reads the sign. It is spaced at Washington's exact height so one can see how tall he was. Babailov pointed out, "It seems like he is standing right in front of you."


"Most agree that Houdon's is the closest resemblance," said the painter, "Even George himself said he was only second in likeness to the Houdon portrait, and General Lafayette, who had served under Washington in the continental army, declared, 'That is the man himself.'"


It is interesting that during this, the year of a historic election, we have one artist asking questions and presenting models of leadership, humility and spiritual authority. Babailov noted that "even though these are different times, right now we are particularly thinking about what is leadership, and Washington's qualities are as needed today as they were at the founding of this great nation."


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Elizabeth Lev is an American art historian, living in Rome. She can be reached at

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