What does one give the Pope for Christmas?
Somehow appliances seem
inappropriate, altarpieces and reliquaries have been done to the point
of overkill, and food, cash and other sundries will be immediately
It takes a truly creative mind to come up with the perfect papal present.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that the best pontifical
stocking stuffer was produced by Rome’s reigning queen of painting, Natalia Tsarkova,
papal portraitist to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as executrix
of the only official portrait of the short-lived Pope John Paul I.
This Christmas, however, instead of using her formidable talent to
compose monumental canvases of men and events that shaped the world,
Tsarkova gave the Pope (and us) a chance to see through the eyes of a
child in her fairy tale book, Il Mistero del Piccolo Stagno — “The Mystery of the Little Pool” released by the Vatican’s own publishing house on Dec. 11.
The brightest stars of the Vatican firmament assembled for the
presentation of the volume.
Msgr. Georg Gänswein, recently named prefect
of the Papal Household, and Prof. Antonio Paolucci, director of the
Vatican Museums, joined Dr. Saverio Petrillo, director of the papal
villa of Castelgandolfo, and Father Giuseppe Costa, head of the Vatican
Publishing House, to celebrate the latest oeuvre of this petite Russian
artist who herself possesses a disarmingly childlike air.
Prelates, scholars and administrators all turned their gaze to the
little pool in Castelgandolfo where Tsarkova’s story unfolds.
The painter’s opulent palate, much admired in her altarpieces and
portraits, and one of the gifts of Russian training, draws the reader
into the waters of one of the fountains of Castelgandolfo, the Pope’s
summer residence, where we meet Bianco, a young goldfish born in these
Bianco loves the light and colors reflected in his pool as
if he lives within a Renoir painting.
In his life of riotous color, Bianco is one day struck by the presence
of white, the reflection of the statue of Mary gracing the edge of the
pool. Both the fish and his father are drawn daily to the still luminous
One day, a second figure in white appears before the statue; it is
Benedict XVI who has come to pray the Rosary. Afterwards, the Roman
Pontiff stops to feed the fish with breadcrumbs.
From this day forth,
Bianco lives in expectation of the Pope’s visits.
Tsarkova reveals a side of Benedict that the media, with all of their
sophisticated cameras and expensive analysts, have never been able to
Bianco sees a quiet figure who prays for all of us in the
solitude of the papal villa. He knows the gentle man who loves nature
and its creatures. The luminous presence of the Pope brings both joy and
solace to those who look with the eyes of innocence.
When the Pope departs the villa to return to Rome in the fall, Bianco
feels bereft, much like we Romans feel when the pope leaves for the
summer, or the world felt when John Paul II died.
But the fish is
comforted that the figure in white will always return.
We are never
without a Holy Father for long, the story reminds us; for 2,000 years
the successors of St. Peter have prayed for us and will continue to do
Tsarkova’s glorious images that illustrate the volume evoke a sense of
peace; only the brilliant tracings of fiery ginger or glowing opal
convey the intensity Bianco’s devotion.
For the moment, the book is only in Italian, but this story is best
told with pictures as Bianco gives us this intimate, child’s-eye view of
Christ’s Vicar on Earth.