Person of the Week: Natalia Tsarkova

ByABC News

April 8, 2005 — -- Natalia Tsarkova, 37, has painted some of the most celebrated portraits of Pope John Paul II.

"To be the painter of the pope is a big responsibility," she said, speaking in Italian through an ABC News translator. "You need to feel a lot of things. You especially have to feel faith. To really convey one's spirituality, you need to feel the person you're portraying."

Five years ago, the Vatican -- impressed with Tsarkova's style and skills -- gave her the opportunity of a lifetime. She was commissioned to paint a portrait of the pope for his 80th birthday.

It took her a year to complete, and the pope was pleased with the final result.

It "was an unforgettable day because I had the honor to be received by the Holy Father privately," Tsarkova said. "He said that the portrait was very beautiful and expressive and that I had to continue on."

She was later commissioned to paint a second portrait.

The Vatican -- long restrictive to women -- welcomed Tsarkova. She is the first woman to be allowed to paint the world's bishop synod. Her depiction of the Last Supper was displayed in front of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece.

"In my 'Last Supper,' Christ is turned, looking at each of us," she said. "I wanted to give a message of peace."

Throughout history, popes have hired some of the world's greatest artists to paint their portraits as a way to connect with world. Raphael's painting of Pope Leo X is among the most well known. Tsarkova is in good company, to say the least.

"What Natalia has done is worked out of this wondefully rich tradition," said the Rev. Giles Dimock, a Catholic priest and professor of Sacraments and Liturgy at the Dominican Order's House of Studies in Washington, D.C. "She paints in a kind of a Renaissance style, but she makes it accessible to us today."

Tsarkova often hides tiny images in her paintings. In one work, she once painted the Virgin Mary in the pope's staff. John Paul -- who believed Mary saved his life during an assassination attempt -- thought it was a nice touch.

Tsarkova grew up in a poor family in Moscow. She started painting before she learned to walk, and her mother put her through art school.

"When I was 5, my mother noticed that I painted everything, even myself," Tsarkova said.

When the pope died, Tsarkova was at work on her third portrait of him. John Paul has left a deep impression on her, as he has on so many. She hopes to finish it for the benefit of the world.

"The Holy Father has done miracles," Tsarkova said. "He stopped wars. He changed history. To paint the Holy Father is a responsibility and a message. A painting of the Holy Father is a message."

ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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