Shen’s portrait of the Pope that takes its cue from St Francis of Assisi.
Jiawei Shen, a Red Guard during the madness of the Chinese cultural revolution, remembers a Catholic worshipper in tears as his team vandalised her church. Now, four decades later, the Sydney-based artist is being feted in the Vatican after completing the first officially sanctioned portrait of Pope Francis.
“I thought about that woman [in the church] today,” Shen said after the presentation. “I don’t have any real religion, but I believe in the power of love and forgiveness.”
The artist, who now lives in Bundeena – the artists’ community on the fringe of the Royal National Park – said his painting drew inspiration from Saint Francis of Assisi, hence the doves, and a series of images taken of worshippers who had met the pontiff around the world.
Inspired by forgiveness: Bundeena artist Jiawei Shen, centre, with Pope Francis and Australian Senate president John Hogg.
Fairfax media art critic John Macdonald has described Shen as leading a double life as an artist. “On one hand he has become a successful, much sought-after portraitist. He has now painted Princess Mary of Denmark, former prime minister John Howard, and a host of other well-known figures,” he said.
The portrait of the Pope arose from a chance afternoon tea meeting last year between Hazelhurst Gallery chairman Byron Hurst and John McCarthy, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See. Mr Hurst said he observed a print of Shen’s award-winning portrait of Mary MacKillop on Mr McCarthy’s wall. The idea was born to commission a portrait by Shen of the newly elected Pope. The occasion to be celebrated was the 40th anniversary of the Australian diplomatic mission to the Vatican
Pope Francis gave his permission for the portrait to be made on his flight back from World Youth Day.
The elevation of Cardinal George Pell in the Vatican power structure also played a part. Cardinal Pell is now a key member of a panel of eight cardinals, dubbed the “Group of Eight” or “G8”, tasked with assisting the Pope in the governance of the universal church. The council’s field of potential concern extends far beyond Vatican reform, and Pope Francis has said its deliberations will include the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Last week during a break in the G8 meeting, Cardinal Pell escorted the Pope to meet the artist and an Australian government delegation.
“The Pope greeted the delegation warmly and then was struck by the painting,” Mr Hurst said. “He did a slight double take, followed by a very close inspection only centimetres away, which was followed by warm papal approval. Asked for his blessing of the painting, the Pope agreed but asked all present – and Australians generally – to pray for him too.”
All this is a change of fortune for Shen, who came to Australia as a refugee before the Tiananmen Square protests. For three years, he made a living at Darling Harbour knocking out tourist portraits.
“The recognition is great, but I just love being able to paint,” he said.