Natalia Tsarkova poses with her pet owl next to a painting of Pope John Paul II at her Rome studio on December 18, 2012
After Michelangelo and Raphael, the Vatican's latest official painter is something of an unusual choice -- an ebullient Russian woman with a pet owl who is a regular at the court of cardinals and popes.
An Orthodox believer in the heart of Roman Catholicism, Natalia Tsarkova paints her classical-style portraits in a flat filled with Vatican memorabilia by the walls of the Holy See.
"I like the atmosphere here, I feel needed," Tsarkova told AFP in an interview in a studio with several unfinished works and back copies of the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
It is a dream come true for this graduate of the prestigious Moscow School of Arts, whose paintings including portraits of Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II hang in Vatican palaces, Roman churches and museums around the world.
"When I studied in Moscow, masters like Raphael, Michelangelo, Pietro da Cortona were like God and now I find myself among them," said Tsarkova, a slight blonde woman with an easy laugh who wore a neat tweed dress and black shawl.
Tsarkova arrived in Rome in the early 1990s and began doing portraits of Roman aristocrats, who introduced her at the Vatican where her background captured the attention of late pope John Paul II.
"He spoke Russian with me. He said 'Long live Russian art!'" remembers the now 45-year-old, thumping her fist for emphasis with the same glee as the late pontiff.
John Paul II made great strides in rebuilding relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and Tsarkova said she too feels she can play a role.
"I feel like a small bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I am like a diplomat with art."
Tsarkova said she often reads religious texts written by her models so as to help understand them and inspire her work, but she also often makes small talk as they sit for hours in front of her.
"They have a very rich world view and they love Russia. We talk about everything, starting with history and ending with my pet owl Rufus," she said.
"It's very important to know how they think, to understand their energy," she said. "When I paint the portrait, that energy goes through my heart, my soul and ends up on the canvas."
As for the popes she has painted, Tsarkova said she reads papal doctrine as part of her research.
She spent hours studying Benedict in St Peter's Basilica where she was seated near him at masses.
"I did millions of sketches! I was able to immerse myself in the prayer and draw at the same time."
The finished work is of a stern-looking pope seated on his throne with the light of the Holy Spirit behind him and images of angels all around him, including one who is a self-portrait of the artist.
"It's as if he gives life to the angels," she said.
Tsarkova said the pope was a "sensitive" character who felt the importance of symbolism in painting "very deeply" and had greatly liked the inclusion of the angels in the final result.
"The face is very important and the other objects are also very important since this is how they will be remembered for centuries to come.
"He is an unusual person, he is very sensitive, clever, patient. He is a noble person," she said.,
Her latest work in progress is a painting of Saint George slaying a dragon. She said she is doing it for herself and was "inspired by the Holy Spirit".
A protege of award-winning Russian artist Ilya Glazunov, who is best known for his patriotic and religious themes, Tsarkova said she would not consider straying from her classical style.
"If you have one eye here and the other there then it would be like a caricature!" she said.
Tsarkova's access to the papal residences helped lead to her newest venture -- a children's book inspired by a visit to a fish pond at the Castel Gandolfo papal summer residence near Rome.
The book tells the story of a young goldfish and his fondness for "the man in white" who feeds him bread -- a reference to the pope's summer hobby.
At the book launch in December, the pope's personal secretary Monsignor Georg Gaenswein said the book was "a window into the Holy Father's soul."