Exposed and developed: The pope’s official portrait

VATICAN CITY — In the days after Pope Benedict XVI was elected April 19, 2005, the phone was ringing off the hook at the CNS photo desk in Washington. People wanted photos of the new pope, with many wanting the official portrait. I remember working the desk during that time and telling people that an official portrait had not been released but we expected that the Vatican would provide one. I was struck by how insistent people were on obtaining the official portrait.

The one and only official portrait. ©L'Osservatore Romano

On April 28 that year, two photos arrived from the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper that appeared to be portraits. They were not captioned and did not say they were official portraits. I wrote captions for both and put them on the wire immediately but did not refer to them as official, only as portraits released by the Vatican newspaper. They were marked for editorial use only.

One of the photos, showing the pope in white with his hands clasped, would go on to be displayed at countless churches throughout the world. Over the years, I wondered about how this photo was made and if this was the one and only official portrait. So I checked with Vatican sources with knowledge of the situation. I was told that this image is indeed the official portrait of Pope Benedict XVI and there is no other.

The image was taken April 20, 2005, one day after his election, when the new pope was at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. This is the residence inside the Vatican where cardinals stayed during the conclave. About 20 frames were taken on color negative film by an Osservatore Romano photographer for the purpose of an official portrait. (It wasn’t until 2006 that Vatican photographers began working almost exclusively with digital cameras.)

Since L’Osservatore Romano photographs are not currently credited, we don’t know who took the photo. The final decision about which frame to release was made with approval from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the office that coordinates the work of the entire Vatican.

In my opinion, the official photo is very pleasing. I think it adequately conveys the pope’s essential qualities.

I have seen both very high quality and very poor prints of the official image. In some prints, the cross is blown out for example. It appears that an earlier scan of the image was poor, but that the current scan of the negative has very nice detail.

Here is the Osservatore Romano image number of the official photo:
00102- N.1000 Foto Ufficiale.jpg

The image is available to CNS clients for editorial use in their publications, but for other uses you need to contact the Osservatore Romano photo service.

One Response

  1. It is obvious that it was a very early portrait because the pope is not yet wearing his “ring of the fisherman”.

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