An enigmatic masterpiece

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

‘Salvator Mundi’ was once thought to be lost forever. The painting vanished from 1763 until 1900 when it was purchased by Sir Charles Robinson, who believed it was by Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci. It resurfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in England in 1958, selling for 45 pounds (around US$125 at the time). It disappeared again until it was acquired at a small US auction house in 2005.

When the painting reappeared in the early 2000s, it was not pristine and required extensive restoration. Despite some renaissance art experts doubting its attribution to Leonardo, ‘Salvator Mundi’ was auctioned at Christie’s in New York in November 2017 for US$450,312,500, setting a new record for the sale of an artwork. The buyer’s identity remains unknown.

Art historians concur that the glass orb in the painting represents the world. However, the orb does not refract light as a real glass sphere would, leading some to argue that this indicates da Vinci did not paint the work. Evidence of Leonardo’s extensive studies on optics, including numerous notes and diagrams, suggests he would have accurately depicted the light distortion of a solid glass orb.

Biographer Walter Isaacson proposes that the lack of distortion was a deliberate choice by da Vinci to emphasise the miraculous nature of the subject. Martin Kemp, another da Vinci scholar, believes it was a matter of religious etiquette, avoiding distortion in a portrait of Christ.

A recent study by computer scientists from the University of California, Irvine, offers a compelling explanation. Using digital graphics and light simulation, they demonstrated that the orb is accurately depicted if it is hollow glass, which would cause only slight distortions. This aligns with Leonardo’s scientific knowledge of optics.

While there is no record of a ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting during da Vinci’s lifetime, he did make two drawings on the subject. Additionally, there is a 1650 etching by Wenceslaus Hollar and numerous copies and variants by students and followers. In 1964, Ludwig Heydenreich suggested a lost prototype based on existing materials. In 2005, Maria Teresa Fiorio proposed that da Vinci never executed the painting and that the derivations came from drawings and cartoons.

2005 acquisition

The painting long believed lost or never executed by Leonardo, was discovered at an estate sale in New Orleans in April 2005. It was bought by Dr. Robert Simon, a dealer and art historian of Italian Renaissance painting, along with his associate, Alexander Parish. The composition was known from two drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, numerous copies, and a 1650 etching by Wenceslaus Hollar.

The painting, found on a cradled panel measuring 26 by 18.5 inches was in a 19th-century gilded frame with an inventory number, 106, in the lower left corner.

Interpretation and symbols

The symbolism in ‘Salvator Mundi’ is rich and layered, reflecting the theological and spiritual themes of the Renaissance era. The crystal orb held by Christ signifies his dominion over the world and his role as the saviour of humanity. His gesture of blessing conveys compassion, mercy, and divine authority, while his serene expression suggests inner peace and tranquillity.

Overall, ‘Salvator Mundi’ is a testament to da Vinci’s exceptional talent as a painter and his profound understanding of human anatomy, light, and composition. His innovative style, meticulous technique, and rich symbolism have created a timeless masterpiece that continues to captivate and inspire audiences worldwide.

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