Saturday, November 4, 2017

Leonardo’s Rediscovered Salvator Mundi

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi
Italian, c. 1500
Private Collection
UPDATE:  On November 15, 2017 this picture was sold at auction at Christie's New York for four times the anticipated price, or $400,000,000 (plus the buyers premium).  This is the highest price ever paid for a work of art.  At this point, the name of the buyer has not been released.

November 4, 2017
Right now, in midtown New York, just half a block from Saks Fifth Avenue, what is probably the last Leonardo da Vinci painting still in private hands is on exhibition, but only until early afternoon on November 15.  At 7 PM that same evening it will be auctioned by Christie’s and is expected to sell for upwards of $100,000,000 (that’s right, one hundred million dollars), according to reports in the press. 

The story of how this remarkable and beautiful painting comes to be lodged temporarily on West 49th Street is one of the most interesting stories of the last several decades.  

Since Leonardo’s own time it has been known that he made a painting called Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World).  At some point following his death in 1519 the painting made its way into the famous collection of King Charles I of England and was recorded in the inventories of the royal palaces.  After the King lost the English Civil War (1641-1649) and was beheaded, his collection was sold off to anyone with the money to pay.  In 1986 I did some research in those inventories, now held as part of the Public Records of England, and was amazed at the number of famous paintings, now dispersed worldwide, that were once part of that collection. 
Wenceslaus Hollar, Salvator Mundi
Engraving after the painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Czech, 1650
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

The painting was catalogued for the sale as “A peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30- 00- 00”.1 It was sold on October 23, 1651 as part of settlement for a debt owed by the Crown.  

When Charles’ son, also Charles (Charles II), was restored as King in 1660, Parliament passed a bill requiring that any possessions of his father that had been purchased in the sales and were still in the country should be returned to the Crown.  The painting of the Salvator Mundi was duly returned and placed in the King’s private quarters.  

On Charles II’s death, it presumably passed to his brother, who became King James II.  When James was forced to flee England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the picture is believed to have passed to others, possibly through James’ mistress, Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester.  

It is presumed to have passed by inheritance to her descendants, one of whom sold it in a 1763 auction for £2 s10.  It then passed down through the family of the person who bought it in 1763 until 1900, when it was sold again.   By the time of this sale its previous history and attribution had been forgotten, and it was attributed to Bernardino Luini.  

It was sold again in 1958 as a “copy after Boltraffio” for £45, after which it disappeared.

When it reappeared again it was in the sale of an American collection in 2005.  It was bought at that time by an American art dealer, who suspected that it might be more than it seemed.  Careful examination and restoration by the leading conservator of the Samuel H. Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at my graduate alma mater, the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, revealed the reasons for its loss of attribution and confirmed that it was, indeed, the work of the master.

Photograph from 1904 showing the picture with the
disfiguring overpainting.
Over time the wooden panel on which Leonardo had painted the Salvator Mundi had warped and split, with a crack running from top to bottom.  To disguise this the panel had been thinned and glued to another form of support and the gap created by the crack had been filled with various materials, which only aggravated the situation and also resulted in a two-fold new problem:  loss of original pigment and clumsy overpainting to disguise these problems.  When the overpainting was removed it could be seen that, despite the damage, the remaining original surface was in good condition and of much higher quality than the attributions suggested. 

Examination by x-ray and microscopic examination of cross-sections of the paint have pretty much proved conclusively that this is the original painting, recorded in the royal inventories, and not one of the numerous copies.  Most decisive have been the finding of numerous pentimenti through study of the x-rays.  

Hans Memling, Maria Portinari
Detail showing close up of head and neck
Flemish, c. 1470
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pentimenti are areas in which artists made corrections as they rethink the design even after having begun the painting.   One famous example, that is evident even to the unaided eye, is found in the portrait of Maria Portinari by
Hans Memling.  Her necklace was initially painted higher up on her neck.  One can easily see the original location because the black pigment of the original line of black beads has come through the flesh tones with which the
artist overpainted them.

Pentimenti are clear signs that a work in which they are found is an original and not a copy of someone else’s work.   While copyists may make differing decisions about the colors of clothing, background, etc. they almost never make changes in the basic design of the work, so copies are generally free of these telltale pentimenti.  I was initially skeptical about this picture, as I usually am about such “discoveries”.  However, the evidence of the pentimenti went a long way toward convincing me that this just might be a real Leonardo.

Evidence from the paint layers is also striking.  The surface is built up in several layers, arguing a great deal of time and effort was involved in creating the surface we see.  Again, this is not typically the sign of a copy, but of an original.  Further, the blue pigment used for Christ’s robe is the very expensive ground lapis lazuli, hardly the blue pigment that would have been used by a copyist!

Then there is the style of the work, especially the style and handling of the face, the hands and the exquisitely painted orb of crystal.  They looked good in pictures, but in person they leave little doubt.  
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi
Close up of face

The strangely veiled, elusively soft impact of the face and eyes, the carefully highlighted curling hair, the beautifully painted blessing hand, emerging out of a highly detailed sleeve (for which an autograph drawing exists at Windsor Castle), 

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi
Detail of the blessing hand and arm.
Leonardo da Vinci, Drawing of a Sleeve
Italian, c. 1500
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

and the gorgeous, minutely observed, rock crystal orb were entirely convincing.  This beautiful painting is indeed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, Detail of the Orb

I strongly urge everyone with any interest in the work of Leonardo who is in the New York area or who can get to the city to go see this picture while it awaits its auction date.  You may never again have the chance to see it this close or perhaps to see it at all.  One hopes that the buyer may be an institution that will allow public access to it, but there is no guarantee that it will. 

The painting is on exhibition in a specially prepared gallery at Christie’s at 20 West 49th Street, opposite the Rockefeller Plaza ice skating rink, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  This gallery has been allotted its own well-guarded entrance.  It is also well-guarded on the inside of the darkened gallery in which it sits. 

On the way to it, one passes a related work that will be included in the same auction.  This is the famous “Sixty Last Suppers” painting by Andy Warhol.  Dating to 1986, shortly before Warhol’s premature death, it is a large canvas composed of ten six-picture columns, each segment of which is a small, black, grey and white silk-screened image of Leonardo’s famous Last Supper.  Each small image is slightly different from the others.  The repetition is classic Warhol, while the subject matter reflects the more meditative works of Warhol’s last few years. 
Andy Warhol. Sixty Last Suppers
American, 1986

It is well-known that Leonardo’s restless, experimental approach to painting had tragic results for his Last Supper, which began to flake off the wall shortly after it was painted.  What remains today is, quite simply, a ruin.  It is difficult to imagine what it might have looked like when just completed.  The presence of Warhol’s tribute in the room next to the Salvator Mundi reminds us that in it we may catch a glimpse of what the figure of Christ in that newly completed wall painting may have looked like. 
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Detail of the Figure of Christ
Italisn, c. 1492-1498
Milan, Santa Maria delle Grazie
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi
Head and Blessing Hand of Christ
Italian, c. 1500

The exhibition is open weekdays and Saturdays from 10 AM to 5 PM and on the two remaining Sundays from 1 PM to 5 PM.  On the date of the sale, Wednesday, November 15, it will be open from 10 AM to 2 PM.  The sale will follow at 7 PM.

© M. Duffy, 2017

1.  For this quote and other information about the painting, its presumed provenance and restoration please see the Christie exhibition catalogue:  Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, Christie’s New York, 2017.  A PDF copy can be found at  A printed copy can be ordered from Christie’s at and is priced at $50.00.

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