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Mother Teresa’s canonization portrait – and what the artist thought of her

The canonization portrait of Bl. Mother Teresa, a copy of which will hang from St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, is meant to reflect her joy and her selflessness, said the artist.

“The credit lies more with the subject of the painting than with the painter,” artist Chas Fagan said in a press conference introducing the portrait.

“That picture will bring lots of people closer to God,” Sister Tanya, M.C., the superior at the Missionaries of Charity Gift of Peace house in Washington, D.C., said of the portrait. She knew Bl. Mother Teresa from having lived in the same building with her as a novice.

Bl. Mother Teresa, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, will be canonized on Sunday, Sept. 4 in St. Peter’s Square. An enlarged copy of her portrait will hang from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Knights of Columbus will have one million prayer cards with the portrait on them available for pilgrims in Rome.
Her official canonization portrait was unveiled Thursday at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. It was “commissioned out of the love and high esteem that the Knights of Columbus has for Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity,” Pat Kelly, executive director of the shrine, stated at the unveiling.

The Knights “worked with her for over two decades, beginning in the 1970’s,” he noted. “Since her death, the Knights of Columbus has honored Mother Teresa through its continuing support of the Missionaries of Charity.”

Fagan, who has painted portraits of all the U.S. presidents and whose work has appeared in the U.S. Capitol rotunda and National Cathedral, was commissioned by the Knights to paint Bl. Mother Teresa’s portrait after he had done previous work for them, including a statue of Pope St. John Paul II.

His “immediate answer was yes” when the Knights asked him to do the portrait, but he had “no idea” it would be the official one hanging in St. Peter’s. Fagan submitted initial sketches and the whole process “took at least a month” before he could even begin painting, which then took six weeks.

The “hook” for the painting, he said, was Mother Teresa’s quote that “joy is strength.” She was a “diminutive, yet somehow earth-shaking figure,” he added, and others who had met her told him that “somehow when she looked at you she was glowing, she was radiant.”

So he tried to make that come through in the picture. “If you want to make something glow, you have to surround it with darkness,” he said of the painting.

What also struck Fagan about Mother Teresa’s life was her “selflessness,” he said.
“There’s a theme that came about from a mentor I had as a boy in high school,” he said, where “if you just start helping someone else, whatever your problems are will start to disappear.”

Mother Teresa lived this out, he said. “And so learning of her life, and seeing how she lived it every single day, that’s just so humbling. And we can all aspire to it, but it’s a big leap,” he added.

Fagan was actually able to feel the saint’s presence in his studio while painting the portrait, he explained. “When you have a portrait in the studio, you kind of get to live with it,” he said, especially toward the end of the painting when it really starts to come to life and when the lights are dim, you can see them there.”

“And having to say goodbye is the worst,” he said. “In the end, Mother Theresa brought joy to my studio, to my home, and now I will miss her company.”

The picture is “superb,” Sister Tanya said. She noted the portrayal of Mother’s “penetrating eyes,” serenity, and her “focusing on the person that she’s looking at.”

“If someone looks at her, they would lift up their eyes to heaven, I would say, because she’s not focusing on herself,” Sister Tanya said. “The person who looks at her would be focusing on God.”


By Matt Hadro


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