Pontifical Effect


Raphael Sanzio gets credit for a style of papal portraiture that lasted more than four centuries. It began with his portrait of Julius II (reigned 1503–1513), who is seen in three-quarter profile in an armchair that is placed on a diagonal. Like all of his successors in this style of portraits, the pope wears a mozzetta, an elbow-length cape of red velvet, and on his head is a camauro, a red, fur-trimmed bonnet. (The camauro recently has been brought back into use by Benedict XVI.)

The face of Julius II is serious, his eyes focused on the floor some feet ahead of him. His left hand g.asps the arm of the chair while his right holds a handkerchief. Giorgio Vasari, in his Life of Raphael, says that the painting was "so true and life-like that the portrait struck fear just to see it, as if he were truly alive"—an indication that Julius II, known as the "warrior pope," was not a man to fool with.

A later portrait by Raphael, and one that is better known, is of Leo X (1513–1521), the first Medici pope and the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. This is the pope who excommunicated Martin Luther. Like Julius II, Leo is seated on the diagonal. Behind him stand Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Clement VII, and Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi. This portrait shows a pope who is somber but seemingly more approachable than his predecessor. He holds a magnifying glass, with which he has been studying an illuminated book, and on the table is a bell with which to call servants.

The official portrait of Clement VII (1523–1534) was painted by Sebastiano del Piombo. Clement was 48 when he sat for the portrait, but he looks far more youthful. His appearance would change dramatically after the frightful 1527 sack of Rome by troops of the Emperor Charles V. Clement was described by contemporaries as a handsome man whose appearance was marred only by a squint in his right eye. The artist makes the squint disappear by putting the pope in three-quarter profile and his right eye in shadow.

Of all these papal portraits the most famous is that of Innocent X (1644–1655), done by Diego Velázquez. The pope looks directly at the observer with piercing eyes. His right hand rests on the arm of the chair, and his left holds a piece of paper. His lips are thin and compressed; there is a suggestion that his jaw is slightly clenched.

I first came upon this portrait by accident, which is how everyone first sees it, I suppose. Not far from the Pantheon is the Galleria Doria Pamphilj—from the outside, an unobtrusive palazzo. In a city of palazzi, it is the kind of building you are likely to walk right by, and most tourists do. Other museums in Rome often are packed, but I never have seen more than a dozen visitors in the Pamphilj at once.

You walk along one of the long corridors, lined with statuary, until you come to a right turn, which will take you down another corridor. Just as you are about to turn you notice a tiny room to your left, in the corner. It looks as though in earlier centuries it might have served as a janitor’s closet. Through the open door you see a bust (of Innocent X by Gian Lorenzo Bernini), and that is all. It is not until you walk into the room and turn abruptly to your left that you see the Velázquez portrait in an alcove. The effect is startling. For a moment you think you are in Innocent’s presence. The portrait itself is a marvel, but the siting was a stroke of brilliance.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 3.