During the 1950s, Francis Bacon extended his use of religious motifs
‒ such as the crucifixion of Jesus—to such paintings as Pope (1955–56) that revisit historical portraits of the Catholic papacy. One inspiration is Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) by the Spanish Renaissance painter Diego Velázquez (c. 1599–1660), from which Bacon painted several studies throughout the 1950s and early 60s. Capped, robed, and enthroned, in Bacon’s hands papal figures become grotesque, encaged, and violent—seemingly wracked with pain and horror while snarling in threat. An unfinished work that Bacon had cast off as a failure, Pope is nevertheless brutal and vibrant. Here, confident, angular, lines oppose painterly forms that seem to have been ground into the surface. Set against a dark blue-black ground, the seated half-figure seems trapped in a geometric framework, another motif in Bacon’s work. As the the subject looks out into the unknown, his arms are braced against the throne, as if anticipating sudden movement.
Like Bacon’s earlier paintings of the crucifixion, this abstracted religious portrait offers no prospect of redemption or hope. Emerging from Bacon’s profoundly atheist viewpoint, this portrait savages all religious caretakers, leaders, and profiteers. In the wake of World War II and the horrific violence that both fascists and revolutionaries had spread across the world, Bacon’s besotted, neurotic, and snarling religious figures suggest that those in power are capable of wreaking absolute social havoc. In Bacon’s hands, the pope epitomizes both the power of despots and the horror of the collective.