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‘Discovering a new painting by Leonardo is like finding a new planet’

Art critic Alastair Sooke, Christie’s Chairman Loic Gouzer and Old Masters specialist Alan Wintermute reflect on the extraordinary rediscovery of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, offered at Christie’s in New York on 15 November

‘I’m not remotely religious,’ confesses art critic Alastair Sooke as he stands before Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, ‘but I find looking at this painting genuinely moving because it is offering a vision of peace that is a complete antidote to day-to-day life. It really is quite an extraordinarily memorable picture; one that feels as though it could just slip off into the shadows at any moment.’

Salvator Mundi  was painted in the same time frame as the Mona Lisa, and the two paintings bear a patent compositional likeness. ‘Leonardo was an unparalleled creative force, and a master of the enigmatic,’ says Loic Gouzer, Christie’s Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art in New York. ‘Standing in front of his paintings, it becomes impossible for one’s mind to fully unravel or comprehend the mystery radiating from them — both the Mona Lisa  and Salvator Mundi  are perfect examples of this.’

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi. Oil on walnut panel. Panel dimensions 25 1316 x 17 1516 in (65.5 x 45.1 cm) top; 17¾ in (45.6 cm) bottom. Painted image dimensions 15⅜ x 17½ in (64.5 x 44.7 cm). Estimate on request. This work will be offered as a special lot in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November at Christie’s in New York

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi. Oil on walnut panel. Panel dimensions: 25 13/16 x 17 15/16 in (65.5 x 45.1 cm) top; 17¾ in (45.6 cm) bottom. Painted image dimensions: 15⅜ x 17½ in (64.5 x 44.7 cm). Estimate on request. This work will be offered as a special lot in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November at Christie’s in New York

Salvator Mundi  is the Holy Grail of Old Master paintings,’ says Alan Wintermute, Senior Specialist in Old Masters at Christie’s. ‘To see a fully finished late masterpiece by Leonardo — made at the peak of his genius — appear for sale in 2017 is as close as I’ve ever come to an art-world miracle.’ 

Sooke describes the phenomenon in similarly momentous terms. ‘Discovering a new painting by Leonardo is a bit like finding a new planet,’ he says. ‘During the course of his career, which lasted for around half a century, Leonardo probably began work on no more than 20 paintings, and only 15 have survived that art historians generally agree are entirely his.’ 

‘It has this quiet aura. It is really quite humbling and moving to be confronted with this face to face’ — Alastair Sooke

 ‘It stops you in your tracks,’ says Sooke as he approaches the painting. ‘It has this quiet aura. It is really quite humbling and moving to be confronted by this face to face. Here’s the figure of Christ in the guise of Salvator Mundi — saviour of the world.’

The evidence that this is a genuine autograph original work by Leonardo is clear to the art critic. ‘[There’s] the shadowy, mysterious quality, the use of sfumato — the smoky, evanescent blurring of boundaries and contours. There’s a real interest and obsession in hair, in the intricacy of these high-lit cascading ringlets. This was a man who was obsessed with optics and the way that light worked — and you can see this light passing through the transparent rock-crystal orb that Christ is holding in his left hand.’

‘[There’s] the shadowy, mysterious quality,’ says Alastair Sooke, ‘the use of sfumato — the smoky, evanescent blurring of boundaries and contours. There’s a real interest and obsession in hair, in the intricacy of these high-lit cascading ringlets’

‘[There’s] the shadowy, mysterious quality,’ says Alastair Sooke, ‘the use of sfumato — the smoky, evanescent blurring of boundaries and contours. There’s a real interest and obsession in hair, in the intricacy of these high-lit cascading ringlets’

‘Originally the thumb was in a different position,’ says Sooke, ‘but Leonardo must have changed his mind and switched the thumb to its final position.’
‘Originally the thumb was in a different position,’ says Sooke, ‘but Leonardo must have changed his mind and switched the thumb to its final position.’

‘These later works are painted over a long period,’ explains Alan Wintermute. Referencing the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and the shadowing in her face, he points out that the sfumato is built up from layer upon layer of very thinly applied pigment. ‘And that’s what we see here,’ he says of Salvator Mundi.  ‘It’s the sort of thing you’d never find in a copy.’ 

Loic Gouzer at the press conference for the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi  in New York

Loic Gouzer at the press conference for the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi  in New York

The quality of the painting in Christ’s right hand was one of the clues for many art historians and scholars that the work could be by Leonardo. ‘When it was subjected to analysis they saw what is known as a pentimento — you can see the workings of the artist,’ says Sooke. ‘Originally the thumb was in a different position but Leonardo must have changed his mind and switched the thumb to its final position. If you were making a copy of a picture there is no way that you would do that. It wouldn’t make any sense.’


‘I think it’s safe to say there is no other great painting by Leonardo that is ever going to be sold’ — Alan Wintermute

Infra-red analysis and X-rays also revealed changes in the left hand, holding the orb. ‘The positioning of the palm has shifted several times,’ says Wintermute of the latter. ‘It’s the working process of an artist who is thinking and shifting as he does it — a creative process that you just don’t find in copies.’

The experts also looked along the line of the upper lip, discovering evidence that the image was made by transferring a drawing onto the panel. ‘This was done by pricking tiny holes in the contour of the drawing and shaking dust that gently goes through the cartoon, leaving minute traces of that drawing in the dust on the surface of the panel,’ Sooke explains. ‘If you were copying a painting it is highly unlikely you would do that.’

Alan Wintermute takes questions at the press conference at Christie’s in New York
Alan Wintermute takes questions at the press conference at Christie’s in New York

Salvator Mundi  is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time,’ says Loic Gouzer. 

‘I think it’s pretty safe to say there is no other great painting by Leonardo that is ever going to be sold,’ adds Wintermute. ‘It’s incredibly exciting. We’ll never see anything like it again.’

Salvator Mundi  will be offered at auction in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale  on 15 November in New York. Before the sale, Christie’s will tour this exceptional painting to key locations around the world, including Hong Kong (13-16 October), San Francisco (18-20 October) and London (24-26 October), prior to an extended exhibition in New York (28 October to 4 November).