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Tuesday, April 15th 2008, 4:00 AM

New York, NY

Pontiff's aura colors artist's image

Pope Benedict's official portrait will be unveiled on Tuesday night - and the artist hopes it provides a unique window into the pontiff's soul.


Painter Igor Babailov says he labored to create a realistic image of the holy father, but also to convey the inner power that lets him inspire billions of people worldwide. 

"There is this special aura about him," Babailov, 43, said Monday. "When he touches you, something special happens in the room." 


Benedict, who sat for several preliminary sketches with Babailov, will see the finished portrait for the first time tonight at the Vatican ambassador's residence in Washington


The life-size work of art depicts the pontiff, hands clasped in front of him, standing next to Jesus - images meant to show the power of faith and prayer. 


"We're all God's children," Babailov said. "We are all special people, and the Pope is no different." 


The painting is like an early birthday present for the Pope, who turns 81 tomorrow. It drew rave reviews from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. 


"It is much more than an image but rather a painting of a presence," Sambi said. 


Babailov grew up in Russia in a family of artists. He is no stranger to painting famous people: He has done portraits of President BushNelson MandelaHillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani


Perhaps Babailov's most important assignment was a portrait of Pope John Paul II in 2003. 


The late pontiff loved the work so much that he had it moved to his Vatican apartment as he lay on his deathbed. 

Babailov journeyed to Rome 18 months ago to start working on a half-dozen sketches of the regal-looking Pope Benedict. 

"It's a luxury to have so much time, especially with someone so important and busy," he said. "You have to get a feel for the person."

With Bill Gallo

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