Salvator Mundi is a painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World)
The image is at once perfect and effortless: its symbolism is compelling and its technique is masterful. Here, Christ doesn’t just look out at us from a boring blackish-brown interior: He subtly gazes at us through layers of sufamato that belie eternity.
Painted on walnut, recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the subject, Jesus Christ, was commissioned for Louis XII of France between 1506 and 1513. The recently authenticated work was once owned by Charles I of England and recorded in his art collection in 1649 After he was executed, it went to Charles II, later it was auctioned by the son of the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby in 1763.
Having vanished for around 200 years, the painting surfaces when it is acquired from Sir Charles Robinson as a work by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, for the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond. By this time, the walnut panel on which it is painted has been marouflaged and cradled and Christ’s face and hair have been extensively overpainted.
The architect Leon Benois exhibits the Madonna and Child with Flowers by Leonardo, a painting previously thought lost, in St Petersburg. Now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, The Benois Madonna, as it is now known, remains the last Leonardo painting to have emerged for almost 100 years.
In his catalogue of the Italian paintings in the Cook Collection, Tancred Borenius describes the present painting as a ‘free copy after Boltraffio’ (another pupil of Leonardo’s). Sir Herbert Cook, however, notes that he sees higher quality in it.
In the dispersal of the Cook Collection Salvador Mundi — concealed by overpainting — is ultimately consigned to a sale at auction where it fetches £45. It then disappears once again for nearly 50 years.
The painting is discovered — masquerading as a copy — in a regional auction in the United States. After acquiring it from an American estate, its new owners move forward with care and deliberation in cleaning and restoring the painting, researching and thoroughly documenting it, and cautiously vetting its authenticity with the world’s leading authorities on the works and career of the Milanese master
A comprehensive restoration of the Salvator Mundi is undertaken by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Modestini explains that the original walnut panel on which Leonardo, who was known for his use of experimental material, executed Salvator Mundi contained a knot which had split early in its history. However, she concludes that important parts of the painting are remarkably well-preserved, and close to their original state. These include both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery. The magnificently executed blessing hand, Modestini notes, is intact. With regards to the face, Modestini comments, ‘Fortunately, apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire layer structure, including the final scumbles and glazes. These passages have not suffered from abrasion; if they had I wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct the losses.’
During the conservation process, pentimenti — preliminary compositional ideas, subsequently changed by the artist in the finished painting, but not reflected in the etching or painted copies — are observed through infrared imaging, and duly photographed. The most prominent is a first position for the thumb in the blessing hand, more upright than in the finished picture. IRR imagery also reveals distinct handprints, especially evident on the proper left side of Christ’s forehead, where the artist smoothed and blotted the paint with his palm. This kneading of the paint in order to create soft and amorphous effects of shadow and light is typical of the artist’s technique in the latter part of Leonardo’s career.
The painting is studied at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by museum curators Keith Christiansen, Andrea Bayer, Carmen Bambach, and Everett Fahy, and by Michael Gallagher, Head of the Department of Paintings Conservation.
In late May, the painting is taken to The National Gallery, London, where it is studied in direct comparison with The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo’s painting of approximately the same date. David Allan Brown (Curator of Italian Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Maria Teresa Fiorio (Raccolta Vinciana, Milan), Luke Syson, the Curator of Italian Paintings at The National Gallery, Martin Kemp (University of Oxford), Pietro C. Marani (Professor of Art History at the Politecnico di Milano), and Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are among those invited to study the two paintings together. Later, the authenticity of the piece as an autograph work by Leonardo was confirmed by Vincent Delieuvin at the Louvre, Paris.
The painting is again examined in New York by several of the above, as well as by David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester) and a broad consensus is reached that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and student versions depend.
The reasons for the unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work by Leonardo are several, including the previously mentioned relationship of the painting to the two autograph preparatory drawings in Windsor Castle; its correspondence to the composition of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ documented in Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching of 1650; and its manifest superiority to the more than 20 known painted versions of the composition.
Furthermore, the extraordinary quality of the picture, especially evident in its best-preserved areas, and its close adherence in style to Leonardo’s known paintings from circa 1500, solidifies this consensus.
Salvator Mundi (‘Saviour of the World’) is unveiled in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at The National Gallery in London. One of 16 paintings in existence generally accepted as from the artist’s own hand, its inclusion in the exhibition comes after more than six years of research and inquiry to document its authenticity.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, curator Luke Syson presents the most insightful and broad-ranging examination of the painting yet. (christies)
The trinitarian hand gesture symbolises that the male and female part of the spirit (the two fingers) is united together under a covenant made with the divine (pointing upwards).
In da Vincis painting Jesus is wearing the Virgins blue color and not his usual red color; this symbolises the union of the male and female spirit. However, Jesus is painted very androgynous in da Vincis painting, this again signifies the union of the male and female spirit
Notice that the leather pattern matches the Kabbalah Tree of life where the heart gem is the Da’at sephiroth and symbolizes the unification between the male and the female (se picture below).
There are three lights reflecting in the glass Globus Crusiger, this again points to the trinity of the male, female, and divine. He is holding the mundus, the world which he’s saving. Orbs in other Salvator Mundis, often they’re of a kind of brass or solid. Sometimes they’re terrestrial globes, sometimes they’re translucent glass, and one or two even have little landscapes in them. What is amazing about this one is that it is a crystal ball.
Golden ratio proportions in composition of Salvator Mundi starting with golden rectangle for the head.
A more complete look at golden ratios in Salvator Mundi is presented in this YouTube video. As you watch the video, consider the detailed anatomical studies da Vinci did and imagine him planning and measuring every aspect of each element of this painting. Imagine him striving to capture an essence of the Divine on a two-dimensional, 26” x 18” board.
Update November 2017
Bidding began at $100m and the final bid for the work was $400m, with fees bringing the full price up to $450.3m. The unidentified buyer was involved in a bidding contest, via telephone, that lasted nearly 20 minutes.
Dr Tim Hunter, who is an expert in Old Master and 19th Century art, told the BBC the painting is “the most important discovery in the 21st Century”.
It completely smashes the record for the last Old Masters painting to sell – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in 1988. Records get broken from time to time but not in this way.
Da Vinci painted less than 20 oil paintings and many are unfinished so it’s incredibly rare and we love that in art.
Before the auction it was owned by Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E Rybolovlev, who is reported to have bought it in a private sale in May 2013 for $127.5m (£98m).
Sources and further reading