The long road to a masterpiece

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Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”


  • Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi." Photo: Adel Gorgy

The chapter being written at Christie’s this week is just a small part of the long story of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World), which sold Wednesday night for a record-breaking $450 million.

Painted around 1500, roughly contemporary with da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” at the height of the artist’s career, its beauty, serenity and spirituality did little to shield it from the vagaries of fate. Like many important works of art, it led a sheltered life at the beginning, and then, as time, fading fortunes and changes of ownership and taste stretched across centuries, it eventually languished, unloved.

“Salvator Mundi” may have been commissioned by Louis XII of France. It ended up in England about 150 years later, where King Charles I was an avid picture collector. Wars ensued, power shifted. Fortunes were made, others were lost. It was listed in a 1650 inventory of the royal collection, and a notable printmaker made a copy of it titled “Jesus after Leonardo ... Leonardus da Vinci pinxit (Leonardo da Vinci painted it).” s

It seems to have stayed with English nobility, passing through generations, till the 1800s. By then, the panel on which it had been painted had split, and, as was the practice at the time, a restorer had a crack at fixing it up however he saw fit, probably unaware that it was a da Vinci. It was purchased at auction in about 1900 for the Cook Collection, as a work by a follower of Leonardo. In 1958, that collection was liquidated, and the painting (still mislabeled) sold for £45, or about $500 in today’s money.

The second genius involved with “Salvator Mundi” was an unnamed American businessman with a keen eye, who snatched up a dark and unheralded picture at a small, regional auction house in 2005, reportedly for about $10,000, sensing greatness. This was despite the fact that the masterpiece was hiding behind a restoration that included the most clichéd disguise of all — a fake moustache. It took years for cleaning, expert opinions, valuations, restoration and second opinions, exhibitions and another change of owners to bring the story to its current page — a sale of epic proportions on November 15.

The picture passed all the scientific verifications of materials and technique. It’s composed almost exactly as da Vinci’s other great portraits (of which only a handful exist). It’s been accepted by the world’s top experts as da Vinci’s work. The story has been checked and rechecked.

But da Vincis aren’t about stories; they’re about light and color, scientific inquiry, visual intrigue, and mysteries of meaning.

So, how does it look? The hands — one raised in blessing, the other holding a rock crystal orb that represents the world — are exquisite in technique, gesture and sensitivity. The face of Jesus is somewhat blurry, veiled by a soft focus. Experts have argued that that’s exactly as Leonardo intended, while others suggest that the forces of age and loss have taken their toll. It may be moot, since we can only regard the face of the “Salvator Mundi” that has come down to us.

The image is evocative and ethereal in its beauty. The face of Jesus emerges from a black background, shining as though lit from within. Luminous, gentle eyes and an enigmatic, soft smile radiate beatific grace. The skin tones are fresh. The colors of the robes are rich and luxurious, its folds painted with great mastery. The ringlets of hair, like so many others da Vinci painted, are rendered with controlled precision and attention to the perfection of nature’s geometry. “Salvator Mundi” surrounds itself with a hushed yet powerful presence and is unquestionably a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

It’s been dubbed the “male Mona Lisa,” and the greatest artistic discovery of the century. Is it? Push aside the pundits, and look carefully at the picture, itself. Let it speak to you. Take the advice of Leonardo, himself, an artist who was relentless in looking and who questioned everything. He said, “All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions.”

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