A Work of Art stirring profound emotional reactions. A genius: Leonardo da Vinci. A masterpiece rediscovered, the Salvator Mundi, with a mystery.
The discovery of the Salvator Mundi (‘Saviour of the World’) caused a huge media sensation, in 2011.
It was the first time for a painting accepted as from Leonardo da Vinci to be discovered since 1909, an exceptional finding if we think that there are less than 20 surviving paintings attributed to Leonardo worldwide.
Extreme rarity, together with one of the greatest artistic signatures, build up to make this painting invaluable.
The (most probably) last painting by Leonardo in a private collection, the Salvator Mundi will be offered as a unique lot in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale next 15 November at Christie’s, in New York. It is estimated to fetch $100 million.
Commenting on this extraordinary art specimen, Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York declares:
“Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time. The opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honour that comes around once in a lifetime.”
“Despite being created approximately 500 years ago, the work of Leonardo is just as influential to the art that is being created today as it was in the 15th and 16th centuries. We felt that offering this painting within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture.”
Rediscovering the Salvator Mundi
The Salvator Mundi discovery happened in a small, regional auction in the United States. Overpaints were heavily veiling the painting, and the new owners went ahead with the restoration while researching and thoroughly documenting the work of art in the attempt of proving its provenance.
Before this moment, worth of a movie, the Salvator Mundi’s existence was not without some drama.
The painting was dated from around 1500. Believed to have existed, partly thanks to preparator red-chalk drawings by the Master himself that are currently in the English Royal Collection at Windsor, this oil on walnut panel was presumed to have been destroyed.
What is known and sure is that the work of art belonged to Charles I (King of England, 1600-1649) as it appears in the royal collection inventory records. The painting is also mentioned in Charles II’s 1666 inventory of the royal collection at Whitehall.
The Salvator Mundi then disappeared from 1763 until 1900, when it resurfaced as an acquisition from Sir Charles Robin, for the Cook Collection.
At that time the real authorship was unknown, as the painting’s attribution went to Bernardo Luini, a follower of Leonardo. Also, the work of art was showing an extensive repainting, which significantly altered Christ’s face and hair, prominently changing his features.
The work was then consigned to auction, at Sotheby’s, in 1958 for £45, after which it disappeared again, to resurface only in 2005 when an American estate purchased it at a small American auction house for less than £7,500.
Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Centre of the Institute of Fine Art, New York University, is the curator who restored the painting in 2007.
She recalls the excitement the moment she realised that she was most probably restoring a da Vinci: “My hands were shaking. I went home and didn’t know if I was crazy.”
Dr Modestini, while restoring the painting, also took great care in documenting every single detail, the work’s state of preservation and the conservation process, concluding that the painting was indeed an autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Salvator Mundi follows the classic iconography, depicting a half-length figure of Christ as Saviour of the World, holding a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises high right in benediction.
The flawless, almost divinely beautiful face that emerges mysteriously from the deepest of shadows, the almost supernaturally penetrating eyes which convey an overwhelming psychological, emotional and spiritual profundity, have no parallels in Western painting. ∼ Christie’s
Both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery are in fact remarkably well preserved and close to their original state.
Also, the painting retains a remarkable presence and haunting sense of mystery that is characteristic of Leonardo’s most exquisite works.
The Salvator Mundi and the mystery of the orb
The study and examination of the painting were long and articulated, carried by a panel of international scholars. The consensus on the painting’s authorship was unanimous.
However, one detail caught the attention of the critics.
Christ’s orb represents kingship, and it is a symbol of the world itself. The tiny inclusions that Leonardo reproduced in the orb indicate that it should be made of rock crystal, the purest form of quartz – widely believed in the Renaissance to possess magical powers.
The substance of the globe, as well as the perfection of its spherical form, endows it with a nearly miraculous essence.
However, some experts are wondering why Leonardo, obsessed with how to render the translucent effects in painting, how to capture the mysteries of light, decided to depict the orb the way he did. This objection caused dangerous speculation over the painting’s authenticity.
The whole matter appeared in The Guardian last 19 October 2017 in an article signed by Dalya Alberge – an article that is now the object of a legal complaint by Christie’s against the newspaper.
It is quite intuitive to understand why.
The article cited Walter Isaacson¹ who, in his forthcoming biography on Leonardo, is questioning what he defined as a “puzzling anomaly”, writing: “In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision … But Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb.
“Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.”
An intriguing observation for sure, stirring to study and understand both the painting and the Master even more.
Having said this, being the painting’s composition a flat, icon-like, figure of Christ, and being the orb represented in full artistic consistency, we tend to agree with Christie’s comment:
“Leonardo’s paintings are known for their mystery and ambiguity. He was intimately familiar with the technicality and qualities of optics and light. If he had recreated the image with optical exactitude, the background would have been distorted.
“It is our opinion that he chose not to portray it in this way because it would be too distracting to the subject of the painting.”
The Salvator Mundi is an exceptional rediscovery per se, “a profoundly moving, affecting and evocative masterpiece” that will surely excite collectors’ attention.
Hoping that a wealthy connoisseur, or some museums, will be able to bring this masterpiece to Italy, we give you rendezvous next 15 November, at Christie’s in New York, for a historical auction that, for sure, will be remembered. CC
Before an extended pre-sale exhibition in New York (28 October to 4 November), Christie’s will tour this exceptional painting to key locations around the world, including Hong Kong (13-16 October), San Francisco (17-21 October) and London (24-26 October).
¹Quote taken from an article appeared in The Guardian, by Dalya Alberge. This article is the subject of a legal complaint by Christie’s against The Guardian.