“Salvator Mundi”: the Saga of the “Last” da Vinci

Note: Brad Miner has the full story today about one of the very greatest works of Christian art, perhaps, the greatest work with such a direct image of Jesus, staring at us, holding the whole of creation, almost like something small and casual and transparent compared with his reality, in his hand. The Catholic thing, not to say The Catholic Thing, is such a vast reality that, as we said when we started almost ten years ago, it’s almost too large to be properly seen. We try to bring you news of that truth, beyond the daily news, every day. Several of you were particularly generous yesterday, a day when most of America was (sadly) just shopping. I realize that we are in a holiday weekend when family, friends, travel, may be pressing. But we’re also in a TCT crunch time. I don’t think you need another plea from me, just a reminder. We’re going to have to take on many challenges in 2018, inside and outside the Church. If you don’t care about that – which I cannot believe – then ignore this message. But if you understand what is at stake, we need your help to be able to speak out as new issues emerge in the coming year, truthfully, to be here at all. Click the button. Be part of that future conversation. Support TCT today. – Robert Royal


There was an historian at the Art Institute of Chicago named Helen Gardner (1878-1946). The 15th edition of her seminal work, Art Through the Ages (originally published in 1926), came out in 2015, long ago retitled Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Her book was unique for its time in that it didn’t only consider Western art: she looked at the whole wide world. But Miss Gardner had no doubt about the high point of world art. It was in the West and in one artist: Leonardo da Vinci.

Gardner wrote of Leonardo that “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote,” – and truly, there has never been anybody quite like him. He was: anatomist, architect, astronomer, botanist, cartographer, engineer, geologist, historian, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, scientist, sculptor, and writer. Psychologists speculate that his I.Q. was 222.

So extraordinary was his work that he seems to owe little to other artists, even his own teachers. In the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912, Louis Gillet said Leonardo “borrowed almost nothing from the past.” He was “the first of the ‘moderns.’”

The art critic Jonathan Jones considers Leonardo’s sketch (a sketch, mind you) of a fetus in the womb to be “the most beautiful work of art in the world.”

That strikes me as an odd choice, especially because most critics would put Leonardo’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, at the pinnacle. And what about his John the Baptist or his The Last Supper? And, if a drawing, why not his Vitruvian Man?

Da Vinci’s father, Piero, was a notary and his mother, Caterina, may have been an Arab slave (she was certainly a peasant and “beneath” Piero), and so his parents never married. The boy’s full name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci – translated: Leonard son of Peter from Vinci – Vinci being a (then) small town in Tuscany not far from Florence.

Vinci, today a città, has two sister cities: Allentown, Pennsylvania and Amboise in France’s Loire Valley. Good for Allentown: through the efforts of an airline pilot, they have replica da Vinci Horse, based on Leonardo’s design for a sculpture he was unable to finish, commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482, and intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.

Amboise, on the other hand (one of my favorite places), has Leonardo. He died and was buried there in 1519. His house, Clos Lucé, was given to him by the French king, Francis I, and is now a museum, although it’s not so much an art museum as it is a collection of models of da Vinci’s engineering triumphs (and failures), very much like the Museo Leonardiano in Vinci. Leonardo didn’t do much painting in Amboise, although he had the Mona Lisa with him and probably tinkered with it there.

No museum could be entirely devoted to the man’s brushwork, because fewer than twenty verified (and widely scattered) da Vinci paintings are known to exist. Thus it is that the identification of another one has been called (by Christie’s, the auction house) “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century.” It is, Christie’s assumes, the “last da Vinci.”

The painting is titled Salvator Mundi: Savior of the world. It is Christ holding a translucent orb:

One Christie’s official describes Salvator Mundi as “a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time.” Some doubt its authenticity – the art critic for New York magazine, for instance, makes some interesting observations (for instance, that da Vinci never painted any subject facing straight on). But he undermines his own credibility by confessing: “I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters.” Well, then? But there are real experts who more credibly question the attribution to Leonardo, including an Italian Renaissance specialist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It is from Leonardo’s studio, Carmen Bambach says, but she suspects the work was done by one of da Vinci’s assistants.

As I looked at Salvator Mundi at Christie’s New York, after standing with my wife for two hours in a very long and slow queue outside on 49th Street on a sunny but chilly November day, I had a first impression similar to the one I’d had some years ago at the Louvre, looking at the Mona Lisa, namely: It’s so small. It’s a very different experience than staring up at Leonardo’s The Last Supper at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, as I did in the late 1960’s. The Milanese guide told me the mural might not be visible in fifty years, its deterioration (due to environmental factors) being progressive and unstoppable. Indeed, today the old refectory room where Leonardo painted the mural has become as hermetically sealed as biolab, yet still the mural fades and degrades, partly because of the type of paint Leonardo chose to use.

            Salvator Mundi has a very different history. Through successive owners, the painting’s provenance was lost for nearly two centuries. The work remerged in 1900 and was mistakenly attributed to a much-admired da Vinci “imitator,” Bernadino Liuni. The painting sold at a 1958 estate sale for the equivalent today of $500. Those good, fortunate purchasers suspected it wasn’t Liuni’s work but the master’s.

In 2007 (a consortium of art dealers having acquired the painting – by then in New Orleans – for about $10,000), Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a conservator from New York University, began the painting’s restoration. Over the centuries, a number of over-paintings and varnishings had all but obscured da Vinci’s masterstrokes. It was a nerve-racking process, but Ms. Modestini had the necessary grit – and skill. It helped too that, at the start, she (like those investors who brought it to her) still assumed it was probably not the original. (Salvator Mundi, well-known during and after the Renaissance, was copied a number of times by other artists.)

“It was,” Modestini says, “a very intense picture and I felt a whole slipstream of artistry and genius and some sort of otherworldliness that I’ll never experience again.” Given that this may be Leonardo’s last picture – and that estimates of the authenticated painting’s worth were understandably extravagant – it’s hard to imagine not having trembling hands.

One question about the painting’s authenticity is this: Did Modestini go beyond simple restoration (not that it’s a simple process) to actually repainting Salvator Mundi? Surely not. But it is an interesting question, in that there seems to be no established rule about exactly how much new brushwork on an old masterpiece should be allowed. This is especially interesting, given that Leonardo’s The Last Supper has basically not been retouched in centuries. But that’s a special situation: the mural can neither be restored nor, ultimately, saved.

Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought the painting in 2013 for $127,500,000, (fearing he paid too much, he’s still suing the Swiss art dealer he bought it from, who’d bought it from those investors who’d hired Modestini), and it is Rybolovlev who put Salvator Mundi up for sale at Christie’s. As the New York Times reported, “A guarantee of a minimum, undisclosed bid, by a third party, ensures that the price is certain to set a new high for an old master at auction.”

Of course, it’s easier to fake a modern painting than a 500-year-old da Vinci.

Small though the painting is (about 26 x18 inches), there is, as Modestini says, an otherworldliness about it, mostly seen in the Lord’s eyes. With His right hand Jesus gives benediction to the very universe He holds in His left, the world He created.

As you’ve no doubt read, Salvator Mundi was sold at Christie’s on November 15th to a still-undisclosed buyer for $450,312,500. Perhaps we’ll find out soon (or not) who the purchaser is, but I’m afraid the answer may be the Louvre – but not the one in Paris. A new Louvre has just opened in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.**

It’s 2017, a new Gilded Age, and Salvator Mundi could have gone to any one of several American high-tech billionaires, who likely would have donated it to a museum for a tax write-off. But we’d have learned the buyer’s identity by now if that were the case. It’s unlikely the buyer is a zillionaire eccentric who intends to remain anonymous and keep the painting on display only in his man cave.

If the painting is headed to the U.A.E., fewer people will be able to see it than would be the case had it ended up at the San Francisco Museum of Art, or the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Met in New York, or the National Gallery in London, or the Louvre in Paris. The U.A.E. (seven emirates in all, of which Abu Dhabi is second-most populous and the national capital) appears to be among the most stable of Arab Muslim monarchies, and I have no doubt its new Louvre is a wonderful venue for art, but the emirs ought to take a page from Helen Gardner’s book and focus their attention on Arab art and not – frankly – kidnap a Leonardo. Talk about cultural appropriation!

And stable though Abu Dhabi may be today, we’ve seen what can happen in Muslim nations when groups such as the Taliban or ISIS gain even fleeting control: ancient monuments are destroyed by the terrorists’ latter-day Iconoclasm.

Of course, all art will be dust one day.

Finally, there’s the question of proportion. I don’t mean the size of the painting but the price it sold for. To some, nearly half-a-billion bucks will seem obscenely high, given the good (in charitable enterprises) one may imagine might be done with that much money. But it remains a fundamental fact of economics that scarcity is a major element in creating value. In 2015, Christie’s New York sold Pablo Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” for $179 million (to the Emir of Qatar) – and in his lifetime Picasso created 50,000 works of art, including 1,885 paintings. So $450 million for the rarest of rare paintings by the greatest artist of all time may actually have been. . .a bargain. Especially so, I suppose, if it is to be the anchor image of a brand-new museum.

Da Vinci may have lived a somewhat indifferent Catholic, but he was a great artist, a brilliant man, and a thoroughgoing Westerner: the ultimate Renaissance Man and the personification of creativity in Christendom. I’m also not an “art historian or any kind of expert in old masters,” still I’ll speculate that Leonardo painted Christ facing front, looking directly at whoever is looking at Him, because there is no better way to portray the One “consubstantial with the Father” through whom “all things were made.” This would be especially so were Salvator Mundi, indeed, da Vinci’s last painting. As Louis Gillet wrote, for all his gritty humanism, Leonardo remained a Catholic man, who likely “died a very Christian death.”


**UPDATE: Mr. Miner was right. Salvator Mundi is indeed headed for the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

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Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.