7 Fascinating Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

Art

7 Fascinating Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

Hailed as the greatest artistic rediscovery of the twenty-first century, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi is set to hit the auction block next week, and is expected to sell for around US$100 million.

Published on 10 November 2017

All eyes will be on Leonardo da Vinci’s recently rediscovered masterpiece Salvator Mundi when it appears on Christie’s auction block in New York next week, on 15 November. Here are seven key facts to tickle your interest in the run-up to the highly anticipated sale.

01.

This is one of fewer than 20 surviving paintings by Leonardo da Vinci

To say that Salvator Mundi is a rarer-than-rare painting is something of an understatement. Not only is it one of a tiny handful of paintings generally accepted as being from the hand of one of history’s greatest and most renowned artists, but the piece is also the only da Vinci painting in private hands. It was long believed to have been destroyed until it was rediscovered in 2005, becoming the first discovery of a painting by da Vinci since 1909, when the Benois Madonna was found.

Salvator Mundi (“Saviour of the World”) was first discovered in a small regional auction in the United States, having been mistaken for a copy due to the fact that it was heavily veiled with overpaints. After extensive cleaning, restoration, and documentation, its place in the canon of da Vinci’s masterpieces was confirmed in 2011 when it was unveiled at The National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition in London – the most complete display of da Vinci’s rare surviving paintings ever held.

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02.

It took six years to research and authenticate Salvator Mundi

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 – began restoring the painting in 2007. After removing the first layers of overpaint, she started to recognise that the painting was by the Milanese master, and eventually concluded that it was an autograph work by da Vinci.

In an effort to further confirm his authorship, the painting was shown to a group of international scholars and experts in da Vinci’s works from institutions such as the University of Florence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the University of Oxford, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In May 2008, it was even taken to The National Gallery in London to be studied in direct comparison with The Virgin of the Rocks (another da Vinci painting thought to be of approximately the same date).

03.

Opinions still differ over when exactly Salvator Mundi was painted

Although there has been broad consensus that Salvator Mundi was painted by da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which many copies and student versions have stemmed, individual experts’ opinions on the dating of the artwork have varied somewhat. The majority of consulting experts believe it is contemporary with The Last Supper, created at the end of da Vinci’s Milanese period in the later 1490s, while some see it as being contemporary with the Mona Lisa, most likely painted in Florence after the artist moved there in 1500.

Nevertheless, Christie’s senior specialist in Old Master Pictures, Alan Wintermute, points out that Salvator Mundi displays radical new facets of da Vinci’s artistic style: “The execution of Christ’s face and hands is entirely new in the history of painting and unique to the peculiar genius of da Vinci. 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 St. John the Baptist works painted by da Vinci around 1500, and the most obvious comparisons in style and manner to the Salvator Mundi.”

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04.

The deeper layers of the painting reveal a wealth of hidden secrets

During its 500-year existence, the figure of Christ’s face and hair were overpainted, most likely due to Salvator Mundi’s illustrious provenance gradually being forgotten. Following its restoration, its true details were revealed in all their astounding glory. Most prominently, Wintermute draws attention to, “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 da Vinci’s known paintings from around 1500.”

Even beneath the original layers of paint, the foundations of Salvator Mundi offer an intriguing insight into da Vinci’s creative process: “Powerfully convincing evidence of da Vinci’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.”

05.

Pay particular attention to the painting’s transparent rock-crystal orb held by the figure of Christ

Christ’s orb in Salvator Mundi – an emblem of kingship, as well as a symbol of the world itself – has distinguished itself an object of intrigue. “It is part of what makes this painting both a beautiful and intellectually engaging example of the great master’s work,” Wintermute explains. “In 2011, the noted da Vinci scholar, Martin Kemp, said one of the things that convinced him of the attribution to da Vinci was the orb itself. The artist was an expert on rock crystal and its properties and painted a slight refraction – two heels of the hand – underneath the globe, a visual phenomenon.”

“More recently, the biographer Walter Isaacson put forward the possibility that da Vinci made an aesthetic compositional choice not to flip the image, either because he thought it would be a distraction or because he was “subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb.” These are both very compelling suggestions. Whatever da Vinci’s reason, we know that visual riddles and conundrums are characteristic of his great masterpieces.”

06.

Salvator Mundi will be auctioned alongside Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers

When Salvator Mundi is offered as a special lot in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November in New York, it will also be accompanied by the sale of Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers – the first time this monumental canvas (pictured below) has been offered at auction. Created in 1986 (the year before Warhol’s death), the artwork – which carries an estimate of US$50 million – is a celebration of Christianity that seeks to inject new life into religious art, and provides a perfect counterpoint to da Vinci’s painting.

“Despite being created approximately 500 years ago, the work of da Vinci is just as influential to the art that is being created today as it was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,” says Wintermute. “We felt that offering Salvator Mundi within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture. Moreover, 20th Century Week in New York is one of our most prominent global sale events for top collectors, so this is an ideal and exciting time to offer such an unprecedented masterpiece.”

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07.

The painting was sold in 1958 for £45

After first being recorded in the Royal collection of King Charles I, Salvator Mundi appeared in a 1763 sale by Charles Herbert Sheffield, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Buckingham. It vanished until 1900, when it was acquired by Sir Charles Robinson for the Cook Collection at Doughty House in Richmond, under the guise of a work by Bernardino Luini, a follower of da Vinci’s follower.

During the dispersal of the Cook Collection, the painting was consigned to a sale at Sotheby’s in 1958, where it sold for a bargain £45 (US$59) before it disappeared again, only to emerge from an American estate in 2005. Bidders at Rockefeller Plaza can’t expect such a reasonable hammer price this time, of course – Salvator Mundi now boasts an estimate in the region of US$100 million.

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