Salvator Mundi: The Newly Attributed Leonardo da Vinci Painting

Leonardo da Vinci - Christ as Salvator Mundi, ca. 1499 onwards
© 2011 Salvator Mundi, LLC.

In late 2011, we heard the unexpected news that researchers had identified a "new" (read: long lost) Leonardo painting entitled Salvator Mundi ("Savior of the World"). Previously, this panel was thought to exist only as copies and one detailed, 1650 etching by Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607-1677). This was a real jaw-dropper; the last painting by Leonardo to be authenticated as the Hermitage's Benois Madonna in 1909.

The painting has quite a rags-to-riches story. When the present owners bought it, it was in dreadful shape. The panel on which it is painted had split -- badly -- and someone, at some point, attempted to spackle it back together with stucco. The panel had also been subjected to a forced flattening and then glued to another backing. The worst offenses were crude areas of overpainting, in an attempt to hide the botched panel repair. And then there was plain old dirt and grime, centuries of the stuff. It would have taken a huge, nearly delusional leap of imagination to see a Leonardo lurking underneath the mess, yet that is exactly how the painting's story concluded.

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Why Is It Now Attributed to Leonardo?

Those lucky few who are familiar with Leonardo's work, on an up-close and personal basis, all describe a "feeling" one gets in the presence of an autograph piece. Which sounds great in a goosebumpy way, but hardly constitutes proof. So how did they find factual evidence?

According to the many Leonardo experts who examined Salvator Mundi during various stages of cleaning, several tangible characteristics stood out immediately:

  • The ringlets of hair
  • The knot-work crossing the stole
  • The right fingers raised to offer a blessing

The fingers were especially significant because, as Oxford Leonardo expert Martin Kemp put it, "All the versions of the 'Salvator Mundi' have rather tubular fingers. What Leonardo had done, and the copyists and imitators didn't pick up, was to get just how the knuckle sort of sits underneath the skin." In other words, the artist was so well-versed in anatomy that he had studied it, most probably via dissection.

Again, characteristics are not material evidence. To prove that Salvator Mundi is a long lost Leonardo, researchers had to uncover facts. The provenance of the painting, including some lengthy gaps, was pieced together from its time in the collection of Charles II until 1763 (when it was sold at auction), and then from 1900 to the present day. It was compared to two preparatory drawings, housed in the Royal Library at Windsor, that Leonardo made for it. It was also compared to some 20 known copies and found to be superior to all of them.

The most compelling evidence was uncovered during the cleaning process when several pentimenti (alterations by the artist) became apparent: one visible, and the others through infrared imagery. Additionally, the pigments and the walnut panel itself are consistent with other Leonardo paintings.

It should also be noted that the way the new owners went about seeking evidence and a consensus earned them the respect of Leonardo experts. Salvator Mundi was given the "kid-glove" treatment by those who cleaned and restored it, even though the owners weren't certain what they had. And when the time came to begin researching and reaching out to experts, it was done quietly and methodically. The entire process took nearly seven years, so this wasn't a case of some dark horse candidate bursting onto the scene, a criticism that La Bella Principessa is still struggling to overcome.

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Technique and Leonardo's Innovations

Salvator Mundi was painted in oils on a walnut panel.

Leonardo naturally had to deviate just a bit from the traditional formula for a Salvator Mundi painting. For example, note the orb resting in Christ's left palm. In Roman Catholic iconography, this orb was painted as brass or gold, may have had vague landforms mapped on it, and was topped by a crucifix — hence its Latin name globus cruciger. We know that Leonardo was a Roman Catholic, as were all of his patrons. However, he eschews the globus cruciger for what appears to be a sphere of rock crystal. Why?

Lacking any word from Leonardo, we can only theorize. He was constantly trying to tie the natural and spiritual worlds together, á la Plato, and in fact, made quite a few drawings of Platonic Solids for Pacioli's De Divina Proportione. We know, too, that he studied the as-yet-to-be-named science of optics whenever the mood struck him. Perhaps he wanted to have a bit of fun. It is distorted to the point that Christ appears to have a double-wide heel. This is no mistake, it is the normal distortion one would see-through glass or crystal. Or maybe Leonardo was just showing off; he was something of an expert on rock crystal. Whatever his reason, no one had ever painted "the world" over which Christ had dominion like this before.

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Current Valuation

In November 2017, Salvator Mundi sold for more than $450 million at auction at Christie's in New York. This sale shattered all previous records for artworks sold at auction or privately. 

Previous to that, the last recorded amount on Salvator Mundi was £45 in 1958, when it sold at auction, was attributed to Leonardo's pupil Boltraffio, and was in horrible condition. Since that time it had changed hands privately twice, the second time seeing all of the recent conservation and authentication efforts.

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Your Citation
Esaak, Shelley. "Salvator Mundi: The Newly Attributed Leonardo da Vinci Painting." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Esaak, Shelley. (2023, April 5). Salvator Mundi: The Newly Attributed Leonardo da Vinci Painting. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "Salvator Mundi: The Newly Attributed Leonardo da Vinci Painting." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).