Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon (1953)

I/av_dropcap1]t might have been a consequence of difficult relations with both paternal figures and the Church, but Bacon painted several homages (or ‘coolings’ as he called them) of Velazquez’s famous PaPal account. The Spaniard’s version places its subject’s scheming humanity under brutally microscopic scrutiny, while this is an animalistic shriek. Seen (and straining to be heard) behind a protecting veil, floating in mid-air on a throne that seems to double as an instrument of torture, the Pope’s skull screams in deafening silence. When we look, we barely see a human at all: no skin on his bones, hands that might as well be claws, and fangs around the black void of the mouth. It’s a check on the viewer’s nervous system – jarring terror, mixed with fascination of something both there and not, and the sepulchral beauty of some infernal liturgy. When an artist piggybacks on the work of an old master, we ask what art is and does, and in this case we’re struck by the lines: the play of vertical lines that creates the illusion of seeing, but also the fine lines between man and beast, noise and silence, and particularly between how we look and see, and can’t help but be captivated by this combination of beauty and repulsion.