Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is one of the greatest and most unexpected artistic rediscoveries of the 21st century.
Its illustrious 500-year history, and the story of its re-emergence, restoration and authentication, is as fascinating as any of the bestselling thrillers about Leonardo’s life and times.
The painting was sold at Christie’s New York, November 15, 2017, for $450.3 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.
The painting is discovered — masquerading as a copy — in a regional auction in the United States. After acquiring it from an American estate, its new owners move forward with care and deliberation in cleaning and restoring the painting, researching and thoroughly documenting it, and cautiously vetting its authenticity with the world’s leading authorities on the works and career of the Milanese master.
Technical examinations and analyses demonstrate the consistency of the pigments, media, and technique discovered in the Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo, especially in comparison to the Mona Lisa and St. John. As the possibility of the great master’s authorship becomes clear, the painting is shown to a group of international Leonardo scholars and experts, including Mina Gregori (University of Florence) and Sir Nicholas Penny (then, Chief Curator of Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; subsequently Director of The National Gallery, London), so that an informed consensus about its attribution might be obtained.
The painting is again examined in New York by several of the above, as well as by David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester) and a broad consensus is reached that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and student versions depend.
The reasons for the unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work by Leonardo are several, including the previously mentioned relationship of the painting to the two autograph preparatory drawings in Windsor Castle; its correspondence to the composition of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ documented in Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching of 1650; and its manifest superiority to the more than 20 known painted versions of the composition.
Furthermore, the extraordinary quality of the picture, especially evident in its best-preserved areas, and its close adherence in style to Leonardo’s known paintings from circa 1500, solidifies this consensus.
Salvator Mundi (‘Saviour of the World’) is unveiled in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at The National Gallery in London. One of 16 paintings in existence generally accepted as from the artist’s own hand, its inclusion in the exhibition comes after more than six years of research and inquiry to document its authenticity.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, curator Luke Syson presents the most insightful and broad-ranging examination of the painting yet.
Celebrated author, Walter Isaacson, includes a chapter on Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in Leonardo da Vinci, his biography of the artist.
Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp, and Robert Simon’s forthcoming book Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts to be published by Oxford University Press.