The dramatic public unveiling of Christ as Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”) in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at The National Gallery, London, in 2011, caused a worldwide media sensation. Painted by one of history’s greatest and most renowned artists, as well as one whose works are among the rarest—fewer than twenty paintings in existence are generally accepted as from the artist’s own hand—it was the first discovery of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci since 1909, when the Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, came to light. In fact, its inclusion in the exhibition came after more than six years of painstaking research and inquiry to document the painting’s authenticity, begun shortly after it was discovered—heavily veiled with overpaints, long mistaken for a copy—in a small, regional auction in the United States. The painting’s new owners moved forward with admirable care and deliberation in cleaning and restoring the painting, researching and thoroughly documenting it, and cautiously vetting its authenticity with the world’s leading authorities on the works and career of the Milanese master. As fascinating as any of the many best-selling thrillers that have taken Leonardo for their subject, the rehabilitation of the Salvator Mundi is the story of the greatest and most unexpected artistic rediscovery of the 21st century.
The newly rediscovered masterpiece, dating from around 1500, depicts a half-length figure of Christ as Savior of the World, facing frontally, holding a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right in benediction. Leonardo’s painting of the Salvator Mundi was long believed to have existed but was generally presumed to have been destroyed. In 1650, the celebrated printmaker, Wenceslaus Hollar copied the painting in an etching, which he signed and dated, and inscribed ‘Leonardus da Vinci pinxit’, Latin for “Leonardo da Vinci painted it’. Two preparatory red-chalk drawings by Leonardo for Christ’s robes are in the English Royal Collection at Windsor and have long been associated with the composition, which has also been known through more than twenty painted copies by students and followers of the artist. Luke Syson, in the catalogue to the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, has speculated that Leonardo may have made the painting for the French royal family and that it was brought to England by Queen Henrietta Maria when she married King Charles I in 1625. What is known for certain is that it belonged to Charles I (1600-1649), the greatest picture collector of his age, and it is recorded in the inventory of the royal collection drawn up a year after his execution: “A piece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30:00:00” (£30). The painting appears to have hung in Henrietta Maria’s private chambers at her palace in Greenwich, until she fled England in 1644. The print after the painting, made by Hollar—himself a Royalist who had also escaped England in the 1640s—and presented to the Queen a year after her husband’s beheading, would therefore have held profound sentimental significance for her. An inventory records that the painting was sold at the ‘Commonwealth Sale’ on 23 October 1651 to John Stone, a mason (in modern terms an architect or builder) who was representative of a group of creditors who received it and other paintings in repayment of debts. Nine years later, when Charles II was restored to the throne and his late father’s possessions were recalled by an act of Parliament, Stone returned the painting to the Crown. A 1666 inventory of the collection of King Charles II at Whitehall lists it among the select paintings in the King’s closet, as item 311: “Leonard de Vince O.r. Savio.r w.th. a gloabe in one hand and holding up y.e other.” The picture very probably remained at Whitehall in the reign of Charles II’s successor, James II, passing to his mistress, Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), and by descent until the late 18th century.
The picture then disappeared until 1900 when—its authorship by Leonardo, origins and illustrious royal history entirely forgotten—it was acquired from Sir Charles Robinson as a work by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, for the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond. By this time, the walnut panel on which it is painted had been marouflaged and cradled and Christ’s face and hair had been extensively, and poorly, overpainted. A photograph taken in 1912 records its compromised appearance. The 1913 catalogue of the Italian paintings in the Cook Collection by Tancred Borenius calls it a “free copy after Boltraffio” (another pupil of Leonardo’s), while Sir Herbert Cook notes that he saw higher quality in it than that. In the dispersal of the Cook Collection it was ultimately consigned to auction in 1958 where it fetched £45 after which it disappeared once again for nearly 50 years, emerging only in 2005—its history still forgotten— when it was purchased from an American estate.
In 2007, a comprehensive restoration of the Salvator Mundi was undertaken by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has meticulously documented the painting’s state of preservation and her conservation process. To summarize her findings, she concludes that the original walnut panel on which Leonardo executed the painting had split early in its history, almost certainly resulting from a knot in the wood, and bowed. Relentlessly experimental and ever searching as he was to achieve new visual effects, Leonardo was not always cautious in the material and supports with which he worked, displaying a conscious disregard for craft traditions which has sometimes left his paintings in naturally deteriorated condition. Old attempts to restore the Salvator Mundi had involved inserting areas of stucco fill in the split, along which paint had flaked and been lost. The panel had been thinned, flattened, and glued to another backing, perhaps as early as the 17th century, and attempts had been made to disguise the old repairs with areas of crude overpaint. Dr. Modestini’s conservation treatment has remedied these underlying problems, but the results of wear have not been entirely concealed. The split in the wood panel can still be detected on close examination, curving around and to the left of Christ’s head; the rich, dark background has survived only in irregular passages, and small local areas of abrasion are scattered throughout. Happily, the recent restoration of the painting has successfully reduced the visual impact of those areas where losses were once evident.
However, both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery are in fact remarkably well preserved and close to their original state. The magnificently executed blessing hand, Modestini notes, “is intact.” In addition, the painting retains a remarkable presence and haunting sense of mystery that is characteristic of Leonardo’s finest paintings. Above the left eye (right as we look at it), are the marks that Leonardo “made with the heel of his hand to soften the flesh,’’ as Martin Kemp has observed. “The face is very softly painted which is characteristic of Leonardo after 1500. And what very much connects these later Leonardo works is a sense of psychological movement, but also of mystery, of something not quite known. And he draws you in but he doesn’t provide you with answers… It has the uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest.”
As the possibility of Leonardo’s authorship became clear, the painting was shown to a group of international scholars and experts in Leonardo’s works, so that an informed consensus about its attribution might be obtained. The initial phase of the conservation of the painting had been completed in the fall of 2007. At that time, the painting was viewed by Mina Gregori (University of Florence) and Sir Nicholas Penny (then, Chief Curator of Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; subsequently Director of The National Gallery, London). In 2008, the painting was studied at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by museum curators Carmen Bambach, Andrea Bayer, Keith Christiansen, and Everett Fahy, and by Michael Gallagher, Head of the Department of Paintings Conservation. In late May 2008, the painting was taken to The National Gallery, London, where it was studied in direct comparison with The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo’s painting of approximately the same date that was itself to undergo a process of cleaning and restoration. Several of the world’s leading Leonardo scholars were also invited to study the two paintings together. These included Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Allan Brown (Curator of Italian Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Maria Teresa Fiorio (Raccolta Vinciana, Milan), Martin Kemp (University of Oxford), Pietro C. Marani (Professor of Art History at the Politecnico di Milano) and Luke Syson, the Curator of Italian Paintings at The National Gallery, who would be the curator of the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. More recently, following the completion of conservation treatment in 2010, the painting was again examined in New York by several of the above, as well as by David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester).
The study and examination of the painting by these scholars resulted in a broad consensus 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. Individual opinions vary slightly in the matter of dating. Most of the consulting experts place the painting at the end of Leonardo’s Milanese period in the later 1490s, contemporary with The Last Supper; almost certainly it would at least have been begun in Milan, as a walnut support was commonly used there. Others believe it to be slightly later, painted in Florence (where the artist moved in 1500), contemporary with the Mona Lisa. Like several of Leonardo’s later paintings, the Salvator Mundi was likely executed over a period of years.
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—notably the blessing hand and the cascading curls of hair—and its close adherence in style to Leonardo’s known paintings from circa 1500, solidified this consensus. Powerfully convincing evidence of Leonardo’s authorship was provided by the discovery of numerous pentimenti—preliminary compositional ideas, subsequently changed by the artist in the finished painting, but not reflected in the etching or painted copies. The most prominent of these—a first position for the thumb in the blessing hand, more upright than in the finished picture—was uncovered and photographed during the conservation process.
Other pentimenti have been observed through infrared imaging. Luke Syson notes several of these “lesser adjustments of the contours elsewhere (such as in the palm of the left hand seen through the transparent orb).” “Such changes of mind,” he writes, “are typical of Leonardo and would be surprising in a copy of an existing design. 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 underdrawing, 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, 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, the 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 the Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo. Syson notes particularly 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.
The present painting, although only recently rediscovered, has already been extensively studied, with a remarkable campaign of specialist research lead by Dr. Robert Simon. The most insightful and broad-ranging examination of the painting was presented by Luke Syson in the 2011 catalogue of the Leonardo exhibition in London. The following discussion depends heavily on Syson’s entry, which itself drew on the unpublished research made available to him by Robert Simon, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi, Martin Kemp and, for the picture’s provenance, Margaret Dalivalle. (Much of their original material will appear in a forthcoming book: Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp and Robert Simon, Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ and the Collecting of Leonardo in the in the Stuart Courts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.)
In his painting, Leonardo presents Christ as he is characterized in the Gospel of John 4:14: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the “Savior of the World.” It is a hieratic presentation, with Christ rigidly frontal and looking fixedly at the spectator, lightly bearded with auburn ringlets, holding a crystal sphere in his left hand and offering benediction with his right. As Martin Kemp has noted (in an unpublished essay), this is a conventional format and canonically required for the depiction of the subject: “Jesus is shown as the unwavering comforter of the burdened and offering the only true path towards salvation. The Savior literally holds the well-being of the world and its inhabitants in the palm of his hand.” The format follows the precedent of the “Christ Pantocrator” (“Ruler of All” or “Sustainer of the World”) from Eastern Orthodox traditions, commonplace in religious imagery dating to Byzantine mosaics, although Leonardo’s Christ is portrayed as resolutely human—unusual at this time—lacking as he does a crown or even a halo.
Christ does, however, carry an orb, an emblem of kingship as well as a symbol of the world itself. As several authors have observed, the tiny specks and inclusions that Leonardo has painstakingly reproduced in the orb indicate that it is meant to be made of rock crystal, the purest form of quartz, and widely believed in the Renaissance to possess formidable magical powers. Rock crystals cut in Antiquity had been set into reliquaries since the Middle Ages, giving the stone sacred associations. As Syson notes, the ancient secrets of working rock crystal were lost until the early 16th century and it was not until some years after the execution of this painting that Renaissance craftsmen rediscovered the technique. Therefore the very substance of the globe, as well as the perfection of its regular and continuous spherical form, endows it with a nearly miraculous essence. No crystal of this size was known to exist and its enormous weight would have precluded any normal man from being able to hold it in his palm so effortlessly. Thus, Leonardo would have chosen the crystal orb for theological and cosmological reasons as well as its obviously appealing optical characteristics. “The perfect sphere is seen to contain and transmit the light of the world,” as Syson notes, and Leonardo here focused his unrivaled painting technique on conveying its transparency and convexity through a series of “thin glazes and scumbles… painted with practically nothing,” as Dianne Modestini memorably observes. Leonardo had a wellknown interest in minerals that exhibited special optical properties. Francesco de Malatesta, agent for Isabella d’Este, reported that he had heard Leonardo especially praise a vase for the clarity of the crystal from which it was cut. Leonardo 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 notes of the inclusions in the orb that “they 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 conventional and its presentation deliberately archaic in its rigid, symmetrical frontality—Syson and other authors have noted Leonardo’s dependence here on the blessing figure of Christ from the central panel of a 15th-century polyptych by Giotto and his workshop (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)—the execution of Christ’s face and hands is entirely new in the history of painting and unique to the peculiar genius of Leonardo. The flawlessly, 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 Saint John the Baptist (both, Louvre), works painted by Leonardo around 1500, and the most obvious comparisons in style and manner to the Salvator Mundi. The extraordinary techniques employed in the painting of Christ—many revealed in the technological and scientific analyses of the picture performed in the course of its conservation—are entirely consistent with what is known of the execution of Leonardo’s later paintings. Christ’s head may have been executed with the aid of a cartoon. The body, on the other hand, revealed a looser, brushier underdrawing; as Syson remarks, “this combination of careful preparation for the head and greater improvisation for the body is again characteristic of Leonardo.” Cross sections of paint samples reveal that the face in particular was built up with multiple, extremely thin layers of pigment, suggesting that as with the other paintings made by Leonardo around 1500, the Salvator Mundi may have been painted over an extended period of time. Modestini observed that the artist first laid down a pale red underpaint, then pulled over this ground at least three more lightly colored scumbles applied in as smooth, opaque and thin layers as possible. “There are no perceptible brushstrokes in the flesh tone,” she continues, “the paint looks as if it had been blown on, one element in the creation of a carefully studied effect, the sfumato, of which the painter frequently writes. The transitions in the flesh tones aren’t visible from up close; they are only distinguishable when the viewer is ata certain distance from the painting, as in the Mona Lisa.” Leonardo smoothed and blotted the paint with his palm, and distinct handprints are visible in IRR images of the painting, especially evident on the proper left side of Christ’s forehead. This kneading of the paint in order to create soft and amorphous effects of shadow and light is typical of Leonardo’s technique in the latter part of his career.
Luke Syson has proposed that in the Salvator Mundi, Leonardo may have been consciously trying to emulate in paint those images of the Holy Face believed to have been made miraculously, such as the Veil of Saint Veronica (kept until the Sack of Rome at St. Peter’s), or the Mandylion of Edessa, a portrait said to be made by Christ pressing his face to a piece of cloth. (The controversial Shroud of Turin is probably the most famous such acheiropoetos today, an image not made by human hands and valued, therefore, as the most truthful likeness.) Magical restorative powers are often attributed to such objects and King Abgar V of Edessa was said to have been cured of a fatal disease when he touched the holy image which Jesus had sent to him. The history of the Mandylion of Edessa is obscure, but by 1500, three competing images claimed to be authentic; of these, one had long belonged to the French crown and was kept in the Sainte-Chapelle until the French Revolution, and another was (and still is) at San Bartolomeo degli Armeni near Genoa. The Italian city was a Sforza possession and when it was taken by the French in 1499, responsibility for this second claimant also fell to the French kings. If, as Syson posits, the Salvator Mundi was likely painted around 1500 for King Louis XII and his consort, Anne of Brittany (to be subsequently taken from the French royal collections and brought to England when the French princess Henrietta Maria married Charles I in 1625), it was likely commissioned soon after the conquests of Milan and Genoa and perhaps with an explicit connection to the recent acquisition of the second Mandylion of Edessa.
The earliest indisputable provenance for the painting securely locates it in the collection of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria. It is recorded in the inventory of the late king compiled in fulfillment of an act of Parliament of 23 March 1649 requiring the sale of their property to meet the debts of their creditors and for the “publick uses of this Commonwealth.” That it was the present painting in the collection of Charles I and not one of the twenty known copies and replicas is attested to by Wenceslaus Hollar’s print which is signed and dated 1650 and identifies its source as an original painting by Leonardo da Vinci (“Leonardus da Vinci pinxit. Wenceslaus Hollar fecit Acua forti, secundum Originale, Ao 1650”). Although Hollar’s Christ is slightly heavier and thicker, with a more pronounced beard, the two images coincide almost exactly. In particular, the knot-pattern ornamentation on Christ’s crossed stole and on the border of his vestment is nearly identical, a crucial fact considering that the pattern is subject to change in the different surviving copies, and in no version apart from the present one does the pattern match the print so closely. The print itself was published in Antwerp in 1650 and proof copies sent to the queen in exile, six years after Henrietta Maria and the Royalist printmaker had fled England. It is therefore likely that the print was made (or at least completed) based on a drawing that Hollar had made of the painting in earlier years, which was a procedure he frequently followed. For example, in the late 1630s Hollar made drawings after paintings in the Arundel collection which he did not etch and publish as prints until the late 1640s, after Arundel was dead and his collection broken up. Given the extensive evidence, there is no reasonable doubt that the painting Hollar reproduced in his 1650 etching is the present, original version of the Salvator Mundi.
If Leonardo employed a cartoon to help him establish the precise contours of Christ’s face, the cartoon appears to be long lost; however, two drawings comprising three sketches survive in which he studied the basic folds and disposition of Christ’s tunic and its sleeves. The two sheets in the royal collections at Windsor are of a somewhat larger scale than the artist normally made for his drapery studies and are executed in a visually striking technique: red chalk on red prepared paper, the shadowed contours of the fabrics reinforced in brown ink, and rapidly heightened with white chalk. Drawn with superb confidence, they were almost certainly studied from draperies arranged on a lay figure (or mannequin) rather than a living model. None of the three sketches are precisely replicated in the final painting and they would have merely guided the artist as he worked out the details in paint. The prominent hatching that is used to create shading in the drawings is oriented diagonally and moves from left to right, as in all drawings by the famously lefthanded Leonardo. However, the separate sleeve study on the sheet with the tunic is more coarsely drawn than the other studies and the white highlights on the sleeve are clearly right-handed, indicating that they were applied by a pupil rather than the master himself. This is only one of a number of occasions around 1500 and afterward when Leonardo and a pupil can be found working side by side on the master’s preparatory drawings.
Of the roughly twenty known contemporary copies of the Salvator Mundi, some of which are by pupils
or followers of Leonardo and some almost certainly emanating from his workshop, none is of a level of quality to support an attribution to the master himself. Prior to the rediscovery of the present painting, only one version has in recent years been advanced as a candidate for Leonardo’s original, a painting formerly in the collection of Hubert, Marquis de Ganay, Paris. Carlo Pedretti (1973) first posited the Ganay panel as the finest known version of Leonardo’s composition, without asserting that it was actually painted by Leonardo himself. Subsequently, Joanne Snow-Smith, in a 1978 article in Arte Lombarda and then in a monograph published in 1982, proclaimed it as Leonardo’s lost original, commissioned by Louis XII and the source of Hollar’s etching. Snow-Smith’s two studies produced invaluable information about the origins and evolution of the composition, but her attribution of the Ganay painting to Leonardo never found support in the scholarly community and the painting has never since been considered to be from the master’s hand. It was later sold at Sotheby’s New York, 28 May 1999, lot 20, as an old copy from the ‘Circle of Leonardo da Vinci’.
A more extensive and detailed discussion of the conservation process that was undertaken to return the Salvator Mundi to its present glory appears elsewhere in this volume, but it is worth noting the many changes, large and small, that Leonardo made in the process of its creation and emerged only in the cleaning process. The dramatic shift in the position of the thumb on Christ’s blessing hand, the reposition of the palm that holds the orb, the significant movements to the bands that cross the stole, the repositioning of the jeweled ornament attached to his garment beneath the neckband all speak to the primacy and originality of the painting and to its authenticity as Leonardo’s original. But they also speak to the probing nature of 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. That the rediscovery of the Salvator Mundi is a once-in-a-century addition to this small but monumentally influential corpus is, in and of itself, more than enough reason to celebrate its return; that the painting is also a profoundly moving, affecting and evocative masterpiece by this towering genius of the Renaissance is almost miraculous in itself.