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Salvator Mundi Puts Leonardo in the Headlines

Leonardo's most cryptic and virtually unknown work, Salvator Mundi sold for a mind-boggling $450 million dollars at Christie's New York to break a world record, more than paying for the painstaking restoration by the incredibly skilled hands of Dianne Dwyer Modestini. Read more about her process in this CNN article. This article by Gary Meisner talks about Da Vinci's use of Golden Ration proportions within the painting.

Although this kind of selling price has outraged many art critics and skeptics alike all over the world—how dare an Old Master work outsell a Van Gogh or other modern work? I'll leave the art market talk to the experts. In this post I hope to examine the painting more fully and explore how much of it is the hand of Leonardo and the rest possibly the hand of others including Melzi, among others. Am I disputing its authorship? Not necessarily. I have profound respect for Professor Martin Kemp and I'm sure he's right when he says that standing before this painting you get the chills, like in all of Leonardo's work. What I will explore here is the proposed date of this painting and some of its details and characteristics that are both indicative of and lacking in what is a textbook Leonardo.

First off, let's take a closer look:

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 × 65.6 cm
Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500?

What is most peculiar about the painting is the frontal view. Leonardo always painted his portraits in 3/4 view or profile, but never in this direct view looking directly at the viewer. We can argue that Leonardo consciously chose this view of Christ as not only the Saviour of the World but by his cryptic gaze, as the judge of humanity also thus, not a mere portrait but representing the Divine. While many are taking at length about the transparent crystal sphere as being too transparent, as a painter I am more interested in the rest of the details. The face and hand—specifically his right hand giving the benediction—are undoubtedly by Leonardo. Even with the pentimento on the thumb, the way the soft light falls on the hand is clearly his characteristic chiaroscuro at work. Christ's face here, confident and unflinching, is a direct contrast to the Christ he painted between 1495-1498 of the Last Supper, where Jesus is pensive and gazes with downcast eyes to the table below.. Leonardo deliberately made the face, especially the eyes, partially unfinished to heighten the drama of the hypnotic gaze. Using the black background was a common element however, in his male portraits:

Leonardo da Vinci - Portrait of a Musician
portrait of unknown musician, ca.1490

Saint John the Baptist, 1516

The ornate Renaissance pattern in the x-shape across his chest definitely has the eye of Leonardo in that incredible detail:

Where I do have issue with the painting is in the drapery itself. If you look at Christ's right hand and the way he executed the drapery hanging gracefully from his wrist, the attention to detail here is definitely Leonardo. However, look at the left hand holding the crystal orb and the drapery surrounding it, including the chest area and one can readily see the brushstrokes are different. The way the drapery is depicted here is frankly amateurish, not up to Leonardo's exacting standards. Look at these studies from Leonardo supposedly that reveal how he was going to incorporate all the chest and sleeves in the confines of the composition:

Gewandstudie Salvator Mundi da Vinci 2
A study of drapery for a Salvator Mundi, Red chalk with pen and ink and white heightening on pale red prepared paper, ca. 1508

It is quite evident here that Leonardo planned for the painting to be much longer than the final version we know of. So this begs the question then, that why would the right hand side of the painting look wrong? Even the blue pigment used is different than that of the rest of the painting:

My only conclusion is that either Leonardo abandoned the painting for whatever reason: declining eye sight, , poor health, etc and another hand finished the left shoulder area. Why it is dated at 1500 is strange because of Saint John the Baptist is clearly a much later work that shows no retouching or any other hand on it. Nonetheless, the restoration is amazing truly, and the work is an important discovery that merits attention.


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