A Closer Look at the World’s Most Expensive Artwork Sold
Dubbed as the “male Mona Lisa” by the international media, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is set to be unveiled on September 18 at the newly opened The Louvre Abu Dhabi. Although the museum has kept its lips sealed over its buyer’s identity, there were a lot of speculations that it was Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who bought it through Prince Badr bin Abdullah, another member of the Saudi royal family.
“Lost and hidden for so long in private hands, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece is now our gift to the world,” the chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, said in a statement announcing the public unveiling.
It is indeed a gift to the world. A long, lost gift finally found in new wrappings. A gift befitting of its name “Saviour of the World”, making its long-awaited “Second Coming” at a propitious time for mankind. Being a masterpiece of the famed Renaissance master, people regardless of religion are naturally drawn into it in its recent mini viewings prior to the auction last November. It was not just a representation of the image of Jesus Christ ought to be venerated upon but Da Vinci’s astounding technical masterpiece that is alluring, mesmerising and yet familiar and embracing.
From £45 to $450 million
One little problem with the Salvator Mundi is that it was not dated and signed. But through rigorous tracking done by Christie’s and examination of the Da Vinci scholars, we may strong to assume that the artist painted this around 1500s possibly for King Louis XII of France and his consort Anne of Brittany. With the techniques close to those in Mona Lisa, St. John the Baptist, and The Last Supper, two of Da Vinci’s famous long-surviving masterpieces, scholars believe that the works were contemporaries.
It then came upon the possession of King Charles I of England (1600-1650) after being married to French princess Henrietta Maria. By the time of the Civil War and the downfall of King Charles I, the celebrated printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar published a print based on an earlier drawing he had made of the painting. It was recorded in the inventory of the royal collection as “a peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30:00:00”. The inventory was compiled in fulfilment of an act of Parliament dated March 23, 1649, for the sale of the king and queen’s property to meet the debt of their creditors and for the “publick uses of this Commonwealth”.
When Charles II was restored to the throne and his late father’s possessions were recalled by an act of Parliament, John Stone who briefly possessed the artwork returned it to the Crown. By then it was recorded in King Charles II’s inventory as item 311: “Leonard de Vince O.r. Savio.r w.th. a gloabe in one hand and holding up y.e other”. It then probably remained in the Palace of Whitehall during the reign of Charles II’s successor, James II (1685-88), passed to his mistress, Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), and perhaps until the late 18th Century.
It is from here that the records of the masterpiece become very slim making it seem to appear that the painting was lost. It surfaced again when it was acquired from renowned curator and collector Sir Charles Robinson around 1900s as a work by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini and was included to the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond. By this time, the walnut panel on which it was painted has been marouflaged (a method of attaching a canvas to a wall through adhesion) and Christ’s face and hair have been extensively overpainted with different colours. In 1913, Finnish art historian Tancred Borenius in his catalogue of the Italian paintings in the Cook Collection described the painting as a “free copy after Boltraffio” (another pupil of Leonardo’s). It was then auctioned and sold at £45 at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1958 and labeled as “Salvador Mundi”. The owner was unknown, someone who goes by the name of “Kuntz”, and Salvator Mundi disappeared again for 50 years.
If New York art dealer Alexander Parish didn’t come to an American estate sale in 2005 and purchased what was then believed as a copy of the original Da Vinci masterpiece, the world might not have been able to see once more the lost painting. For a fair price of $10,000, Parish took it home and have it studied by fellow art dealers and Da Vinci scholars. A comprehensive restoration was undertaken in 2007 by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, New York University, which led to the shocking discovery that the painting, was undoubtedly, the long lost original Salvator Mundi.
To confirm their beliefs, the painting was studied in 2008 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, then to The National Gallery, London. In 2010, a broad consensus was 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. As stated by Christie’s in their article:
“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.”
Alexander Parish in 2013 then sold it to Swiss businessman and art dealer Yves Bouvier in a private Sotheby’s sale for $75-80 million who later that year sold it for $127.5 million to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. On November 15, 2017 the Salvator Mundi was finally acquired by the Saudi royal family and turned it over to the United Arab Emirates’ Department of Culture and Tourism through an auction sale at Christie’s New York. All for a staggering amount of $450.3 million.
Pentimenti, spolveri, fingerprints affirm artwork’s authenticity
“This is the Holy Grail of old master painting, and the greatest art rediscovery of the 21st Century,” said Alan Wintermute, a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, as he introduced the painting at Christie’s Hong Kong office last October. For three days it was there in Hong Kong together with other notable works included in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on November 15 at Christie’s New York.
“The opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honour that comes around once in a lifetime,” said Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York. “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.”
For many decades, it was long believed as a copy—perhaps by one of Da Vinci’s students—because of its many alterations compared to the documented sketches of the original. Moreover, Da Vinci’s distinct styles are almost unrecognisable at first look.
“My hands were shaking… I went home and didn’t know if I was crazy,” Dianne Dwyer Modestini, the conservator who restored the work in 2007, recalls her excitement after removing the first layers of overpaint, when she began to recognise that the painting was by the master himself.
Modestini explained that the original walnut panel on which Da Vinci executed Salvator Mundi contained a knot in which had split early in the painting’s history. However, she concluded 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 orbm and much of his drapery. The magnificently executed blessing hand, Modestini noted, is intact. With regards to the face, Modestini commented, “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 was brought to The National Gallery, London for more examination and comparison with the other Da Vinci paintings. Luke Syson, the Curator of Italian Paintings there and was the curator of the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, noted that several of the pentimenti were typical of Leonardo. “[It] would be surprising in a copy of an existing design,” he affirmed. “The head was perhaps executed with the aid of a cartoon; when the picture is examined in infrared, spolveri—pouncing—can be seen running along the line of the upper lip. The rest of the body has a much looser, brushy underwashing, with further small changes of mind. This combination of careful preparation for the head and much greater improvisation for the body is characteristic of Leonardo.
“The painting technique is close to that of the Mona Lisa and the Saint John the Baptist,’ Syson continued, “the face in particular built up with multiple, extremely thin paint layers, another technical aspect that makes Leonardo’s authorship certain. Like both of these pictures, Salvator Mundi may well have been painted over an extended period of time.”
Technical examinations and analyses have demonstrated the consistency of the pigments, media, and technique discovered in Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo. Syson said that the use of precious lapis lazuli in the Christ’s celestial blue clothes, a practice that was unusual at this date, suggestive of the opulence of the commission.
Christ, the Saviour of the World
Art critic Alastair Sooke, who examined Salvator Mundi for Christie’s special feature The Last Da Vinci, said that the artist must have based the masterpiece on the passage in the Gospel of St. John: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the World,” (John 4:14). Christ is seen with auburn-coloured hair in ringlet fashion, eyes fixed at the spectator, holding a sphere in his left hand symbolising the world, and offers benediction with his right hand. He although lacks a crown or a halo as the artist portrays him as human, which was unusual during the Renaissance.
Despite the lack of indication in the painting that Christ is divine or a king, Sooke said that the orb is a sufficient emblem of kingship. With the orb having tiny specks and an illusion of hollowness and opacity, it is strong to assume that the orb is made of rock crystal—the purest form of quartz. Sooke said that at the time, rock crystals were believed to contain magical powers and deemed sacred as they are cut and sent into reliquaries of churches since the Middle Ages.
“The perfect sphere is seen to contain and transmit the light of the world,” Syson noted. Leonardo had a well-known interest in minerals that exhibited special optical properties. The artist himself wrote in a scientific treatise that the light which passes through “diaphanous bodies” like glass or crystal produce the “same effect as though nothing intervened between the shaded object and the light that falls upon it.” Modestini noted that the orb “are astonishing under the microscope. Each has been described by an underpainted middle tone, bracketed by a curlicue of white, and a dark shadow. They vary in size and disposition and are each somewhat different depending on the fall of light. Only Leonardo, with his interest in the natural sciences, would have gone to such obsessive lengths.”
“If the format of the painting is deliberately archaic in its symmetrical frontality… the execution of Christ’s face and hands is entirely new in the history of painting and unique to the peculiar genius of Leonardo,” Sooke said. “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 until the creation of Mona Lisa and the St. John the Baptist (both in Louvre, Paris), works painted by Leonardo around 1500, and the most obvious comparisons in style and manner to the Salvator Mundi.”
Furthermore, Sooke believes that the many changes in the process of the creation of Salvator Mundi confirms Leonardo’s genius. “The relentless experimentation, curiosity and perfectionism that led him to abandon, unsatisfied, most of the paintings he started, and resulted in a tiny body of finished masterpieces that rank among the most enigmatic and haunting works in the history of art,” Sooke said.
Indeed, this might be the last Da Vinci masterpiece we will see.
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Chronology of Salvator Mundi
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