It may not be the greatest of paintings, but with its veneer of dark, foggy sfumato, one of the characteristic techniques of its supposed creator Leonardo da Vinci, and its strangely misty eyes that seem to look out at you, but not at you, the Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – has an enigmatic aura appropriate for a work that is rapidly becoming not just the world’s most expensive paining, but one of its most mysterious.
Showing Jesus with one hand raised in benediction and the other holding a crystal orb signifying mastery of the cosmos, the painting is an object lesson in the ways controversy and an unlikely back story can give a painting the “personality” that will lift it into the truly stellar league, even when it is far from universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, nor even unanimously endorsed by experts as by the artist it’s supposed to be by.
When Salvator Mundi was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York last November for $450 million (double the previous highest price for a work of art), it seemed an awful lot of money for a painting, even one by the world’s most famous artist – or one, indeed, which a substantial number of experts believed was definitively not by the enigmatic Renaissance polymath. To the mysterious cabal of Arab princes who bought the painting, however, such factors were mere details. Indeed, the fact that a mysterious cabal of Arab princes had bought it added enormously to the work’s standing. By lunchtime on the day following the sale, the Salvator Mundi was already one of the most famous paintings of all time.
Now the painting is at the centre of another mildly baffling furore, which will only add to its status.
Having been bought by Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhum al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, possibly as a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, but acting on behalf of the recently opened Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi (are you still with me?), the painting seems to have grown substantially in curatorial credibility over the ten months since the Christie’s sale.
Painted, it is understood, around 1500 – the same period, significantly, as that all-time icon the Mona Lisa – the Salvator Mundi was first noted in the early 17th century in the ownership of Charles I. Following his substantial collection’s dispersal by the Parliamentarians, the painting disappeared only to enter the Cook Collection in Richmond, Surrey, in 1900 as a work by Leonardo’s follower Barnardino Luini.
After being sold at Sotheby’s for a mere £45 in 1958, the painting eventually showed up again in New Orleans, Louisiana, badly damaged, where it was bought in 2005 by a consortium of American dealers as a work by a different Leonardo assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltrafio. After six years of restoration, however, the painting was declared a genuine Leonardo, and eventually bought by billionaire Russian businessman Dimitry Rybolovlev, for $127.5 million, in a sale involving a lawsuit against French art dealer Yves Bouvier that would make a novel in its own right.
While noted scholars Matthew Landrus of Oxford University and Frank Zollner of Leipzig both still believe the work is by Luini, a persuasively large caucus of experts now accept the official attribution, that the work is by Leonardo.
Now, despite an announcement that the painting would be unveiled this month at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, prior to its appearance in a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris next year, the display of the painting has been indefinitely postponed, without explanation. Is the museum simply waiting for the right moment? November 11, perhaps, to mark the museum’s first anniversary? Or is some new revelation about the painting’s authenticity and provenance about to be dropped on us?
Whatever the reason might be, it will be most unlikely to challenge the official status of this so-called masterpiece. But even the smallest incident in the life of this painting will be enough to set news desk bells ringing around the world, as has happened this week, adding to the incremental build-up of mystery and aura around the work that will ultimately make it an “icon”.
And that is entirely in keeping with our sense of its notional creator.
There are fewer than twenty known paintings by Leonardo, of most of which the general public are happily ignorant. As a scientist, he was little more than a notebook doodler, most of whose “inventions” are barely worthy of the term. But try telling that to the crowds that form each day around the Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting – though does anybody now quite remember why?
We are profoundly attached to our near mystical idea of Leonardo as the great Renaissance man, a figure with almost superhuman levels of knowledge and understanding. But ultimately he’s a man who’s famous for doing a painting that is famous for being famous.
Eventually, if it generates enough quirky news stories and goes on living a life in which everything that happens to it is of international note, the Salvator Mundi could one day go from being a footnote in the Leonardo story to the principle reason why people know his name.