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Rome Notes: Egging On the Pope; a Rococo Rarity

Artist Natalia Tsarkova's Creative Gift

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 23, 2004 (Zenit) - As one can well imagine, the Holy Father receives numerous gifts throughout the year, everything from baseball caps to antique manuscripts. The Swiss Guards even speak of an elderly woman who brought the Pope a home-cooked meal every day. So when his birthday rolls around, one really has to ask, what do you give the man who has everything?

Artist Natalia Tsarkova came up with an innovative answer to this dilemma. This young, highly talented Russian painter who has already executed the official portraits of John Paul I and John Paul II, as well as several other works for the Holy See, decided to offer the Pope another painting, but this time not on a panel or canvas, but on an egg -- a foot-high painted wooden egg.

Tsarkova delivered the egg to the Holy Father on June 20, a month after the Pope's birth date of May 18, in a private audience.

I went to Tsarkova's tiny studio above the noisy, bustling Piazza Barberini where artists such as Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona would have been spotted 400 years ago, to ask her about it.

Tsarkova said the idea of the egg had been percolating for about two years. "I was thinking about how I could do something special for this Pope who has been so good to me," she said. "I wanted to make something unique for him."

She hit upon the idea of an egg. "The egg is a symbol of life, creation and resurrection," she explained. But in Tsarkova's case, the symbolism was more personal. "I am Russian and Russia is famous for its beautiful, jeweled eggs designed by Fabergé," she said. "I wanted to create an artistic link between Eastern and Western Europe."

Tsarkova showed me photographs of her egg, which is covered with scenes from the life of the Pope, as well as portraits of the people who are closest to him and paintings that she has executed for the Holy See. The events of 2004 were particularly emphasized. Tsarkova, who is Russian Orthodox, sees 2004 as a special year, as Easter fell on the same date in both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars.

Above the miniature replica of Tsarkova's painting of the "Last Supper" she pointed out two entwined branches. "One is the olive, symbol of Catholic Easter. The other, flecked with tiny yellow flowers, is pussy willow, the first tree to blossom in the spring and the symbol of Orthodox Easter," she explained.

The symbolism of nature is present throughout the work. Poppies freckle the space under the "Last Supper" to represent the drops of blood Christ shed for mankind. Sheep are arrayed next to the image of St. Peter's Square as a reminder of Jesus' words to St. Peter, written in both Greek and Latin over the apse of St. Peter's Basilica, "Feed my sheep and lambs."

Cardinals Edmund Szoka, Angelo Sodano and Paul Poupard figure in the work, as do Archbishop Piero Marini, papal master of ceremonies, and Archbishop James Harvey, prefect of the Pontifical Household. A special place is reserved for John Paul II's personal secretary and dear friend Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is borne through the air to the Pope by an angel. Tsarkova smiled warmly as she showed me that detail. "He was sent by the Pope's guardian angel," she explained, "to protect and watch over the Holy Father."

The petite, blond artist herself is portrayed swathed in black, kneeling as she presents her paintings to John Paul II.

What did the Pope think of it? "He looked at it for a long time, smiling at some of the details and studying some parts very intently," she answered. He was particularly surprised and pleased by one detail. "There are baby angels in many parts of the work, but I put one sitting behind the Holy Father writing in a book," Tsarkova said. The title of the book? "Arise, Let Us Be Going!" which was released this year on the Pope's birthday.

At the moment, this beautiful gift sits in the Pope's apartments. Someday it will likely join Tsarkova's other works in the Vatican Museums.

* * * *

A Monument to the Other Mary

Speaking of eggs, today is the feast of Mary Magdalene.

A little-known legend has it that Mary Magdalene spent several years in Rome and actually met Emperor Tiberius. She proclaimed to him about Christ's resurrection, showing him an egg as a symbol of new life with the words: "Christ is Risen!" Tiberias scoffed that it was impossible to rise from the dead, any more than the egg in her hand could turn red. The egg immediately turned scarlet.

According to some, such would be the origin of coloring Easter eggs.

Despite her great importance both as "apostle to the apostles" and in the history of art, surprisingly little is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene in Rome, with one noteworthy exception. ...

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