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Wednesday, 8 July 2015


Next in our 'picture this series,' we focus on two iconic depictions of Pope Innocent X by Spanish master Diego Velazquez and British artist Francis Bacon:

Diego Velazquez, Portrait of Innocent X, 1650
Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 
© ARS, Photo credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines
Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X is considered a masterpiece of 17th century portraiture. Giovanni Battista Pamphili was Pope from 1644 to 1655 and at the time that this portrait was painted the papacy had shifted its alliances away from France and towards the Spanish Habsburg. His papal reign was marred by tumult and accusations of impropriety; the pope attacked the Barberini for ‘misappropriation of public moneys’, offended France to the point of invasion, supported Venice against the Turks and refused to acknowledge the succession of Portugal in 1640. Contemporary accounts also allude to depraved behaviour with the wife of his late brother, Olimpia Maidalchini, who was said to manipulate the Pope's political decisions.

By painting the Pope, Velazquez entered an esteemed lineage of papal painters including the Italian Renaissance masters Raphael and Titian, who served as an important sources of inspiration in terms of both realism, light and psychological depth. The portrait is characterised by free, loose brushwork that would later inspire the Impressionists.

Francis Bacon’s depiction of Pope Innocent X is unsettling and undermines the authoritative power and poise envisaged by Velazquez. Our eye is drawn to the screaming mouth, a disturbing feature that alludes to existential agony. It also refers to the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of the silent film Battleship Potemkin, in which a nurse cries out as she is shot through her eyeglasses. 

The pope sits within a strange, enclosed space made up of horizontal and vertical yellow lines, isolated from any narrative context. This suggests the importance of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the notions of human vulnerability and the loss of faith discussed in his influential book The Birth of Tragedy. The vertical and diagonal brushstrokes that cover the canvas give a sense of movement and the blurred effect emphasises the impression that the Pope is falling through space. His powerful status in Velazquez’s portrait may have held contemporary resonance for Bacon in relation to Fascist propaganda photography. In later reworkings of the papal theme, Bacon included visual references to the controversial Pope Pius XII, who was believed by some to have appeased the Nazis. 

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