Strange Leonardo: a Salvator Mundi

This is an oil painting over 500 years old. The question is, who painted it?

Probably quite a few people put paint on this particular Salvator Mundi at one time or another, the most recent being the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini who worked on it for six years from about 2006. She cleaned it first and make it look something like this:

Then she restored it.

It was only in 2011 that the painting was officially attributed to Leonardo, after a meeting of international art scholars in 2008 at the National Gallery in London where it was subsequently exhibited as Leonardo da Vinci, Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards. In 2017 Christie’s in New York sold it by auction for $450,312,500. This is what they said and are still saying now in June 2019:

Salvator Mundi, a depiction of Christ as ‘Saviour of the World’ by one of history’s greatest and most renowned artists … this stunning price reflects the extreme rarity of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci … the ‘Male Mona Lisa’ … Salvator Mundi in the National Gallery’s landmark 2011-12 exhibition of Leonardo’s surviving paintings – sealed its acceptance as a fully autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci.

I have not actually seen this painting in the flesh but from digital images it doesn’t look like a Leonardo to me. It simply doesn’t, and if you don’t believe a painting can be judged just by looking at it, that’s exactly what Martin Kemp did in 2011 and he’s one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci. This Salvator Mundi had previously been attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s best pupils. I don’t necessarily believe it’s by him either.

When I first saw the image a few things in particular struck me about this painting. Apart from the overall look, the embroidery on the gown is badly painted:

It’s a mess and Leonardo da Vinci didn’t paint it. Then the orb in the left hand:

After restoration

Before restoration

Leonardo da Vinci knew how a solid transparent sphere distorts light. Not just how, but why. Walter Isaacson, a biographer of Leonardo, points out that he was fastidious about the reflection and refraction of light. At the time he would have painted the Salvator Mundi he was “deep into his optics studies” and filled his notebooks with diagrams of light bouncing at different angles. “Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images,” Isaacson wrote. “Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.”

Leonardo da Vinci study drawing

Of course he might have painted the orb deliberately wrong. It’s symbolic after all. If I was Leonardo I might explain it like this:

“When you look through a transparent sphere nothing is clear. I know how the light bounces around inside it and distorts the background. I know because I’ve studied this in detail and drawn preparatory studies of it. But I realised this would not look right in the painting. It’s not supposed to represent an actual physical ball but the Earth itself. If I’d painted it realistically people would have said that Christ is just holding a crystal ball but it’s so much more than that. So I had to paint it in such a way that it didn’t distract but added to the message: Christ, saviour of the Earth.

Incidentally, I’ve studied the Earth as well, and how to represent it’s surface as a curved map – my cartographic studies. That wouldn’t have looked right either. I wanted to give it depth, an ethereal quality like a celestial body. I think it works.”

Using his own crystal ball, the art scholar Martin Kemp apparently believes the way the orb was painted proves Leonardo painted the whole picture – that the palm is actually correct. It’s definitely wrong according to my crystal ball (which is bigger than Kemp’s). Opinions differ, obviously. For more, read this interesting article by Hasan Niyazi. Other experts said:

“Whatever Leonardo’s reason, we know that visual riddles and conundrums are characteristic of his great masterpieces. It is part of what makes this painting both a beautiful and intellectually engaging example of the great master’s work”

“he knew full well … but he chose not to paint it that way because he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb.”

I don’t know where they get this from. Apart from perhaps the strange horizon on the Mona Lisa I can’t think of any ‘visual riddles and conundrums’ in Leonardo’s paintings, at least not as obvious as a wrongly painted crystal ball, and besides, it would make it look miraculous only to someone accustomed to looking in crystal balls.

The best part of the Salvator Mundi is Christ’s blessing hand and Leonardo da Vinci might well have painted it. Or maybe not – I don’t think you would actually see the thumbnail, just the fleshy pad (try this in a mirror). It was certainly nicely painted if not necessarily as nicely observed; of all the artists in the history of painting, none was more observant than Leonardo – so much so that even the Mona Lisa has the wart on her nose.

The Mona Lisa’s wart

At this point it’s worth trying to define what is a ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ since there is no 100% Leonardo in existence. For a painting to be ‘attributed’ to a particular artist there must be a written document by a knowledgeable and nationally (or internationally) recognised or respected expert on the artist in question. A signed certificate of authenticity must state that in their opinion the art is likely to be the work of that artist. Even when this expert believes a painting is ‘by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci’ (or any other artist for that matter) by the hand of is not necessarily an exact science, especially with old masters.

The Salvator Mundi, for instance, has been heavily restored in recent years and it may have been ‘restored’ previously more than once in the hundreds of years since it was painted. Even if it was originally by the hand of Leonardo, how much of his paint remains on it? How much of what you now see in its surface was by him? How closely do the restorations conform with the original?

Did he paint the whole of it or did he delegate parts of the painting to his students and assistants, and if so, how much? What makes attribution inexact is that there is no precise percentage of by his hand that makes it a Leonardo or not. Is it enough for him to have composed the picture and drawn some preparatory studies that were then used by his workshop to paint more of it than he did? Who can be sure of all this? Nobody. Certainly not the person who paid $450,312,500 for it. Not even the world’s greatest expert.

So this expert, or experts in the case of the Salvator Mundi. In May 2008 some experts assembled in London’s National Gallery under the supervision of Nicholas Penny who was then its director. They included Professor Pietro Marani and Maria Teresa Fiorio (both from Milan), Carmen Bambach and David Alan Brown (both from the USA), and Martin Kemp. The owner was there as well, although he remained silent. No minutes were taken, no announcement made, nothing official, nothing signed. Instead, Luke Syson, a curator who was organising a Leonardo exhibition at the gallery and whose idea it was to have the meeting, told Penny afterwards that the experts had agreed the painting was by Leonardo. At least two of the experts – Fiorio and Bambach – subsequently denied a consensus was reached, but that didn’t stop the gallery putting it in the exhibition.

Only six paintings are universally accepted as Leonardos. Another eleven or so are ‘generally accepted’, including the Salvator Mundi – which a number of scholars dispute. The paper trail goes cold for large periods of time, and not back to its origin either. Exactly who painted the most expensive picture in the world may never be proved, or it may be proved it was by someone else. Either way, it was probably bought for a bad reason and not for its inherent quality as a work or art. It’s a bad reason because it helps to inflate prices and makes it more difficult for galleries, or nations, to acquire (or hold on to) important paintings. In other words, it affects you and me.

The whereabouts of the painting are currently unknown but the Guardian reported recently it may be on its owner’s superyacht somewhere in the Middle East.

Leave a comment