An inscrutable smile, a curious pose and mesmerizing eyes are all reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Over the course of centuries missing da Vinci’s have been coveted and searched for. No less true for the Salvator Mundi, Leonardo’s “Savior of the World.”
The story of the painting’s journey crosses country boundaries and centuries of time. About one hundred years after the painting was completed, an engraving was made of the work by Wenceslaus Hollar, a Bohemian engraver. Over twenty copies of the painting are known to exist.
It was in 1763, upon the sale of the contents of Buckingham House (now Palace) that the painting disappeared from view. 137 years later, in 1900, Sir Frederick Cook acquired the painting for his personal collection. Cook’s descendants sold the work at auction in 1958 for £58.00, believing it to be yet another copy-and a poor one at that.
As with nearly all works of the Renaissance, there were many copies made over the course of centuries. Such is certainly the case of the Salvator Mundi, whose copies number over twenty.
It was only upon further inspection and study by the art historian and New York art dealer, Robert Simon, and a team of other experts that the hidden secrets of the painting became known. Damaged by numerous attempts at restoration, including poor work on the wood panel upon which the work was painted, it took patience, the use of x-ray and infrared study as well as other scientific methods to discover that this is the original da Vinci.
There were many crucial points of evidence that have convinced the art world that this is truly by Leonardo. The attention to the detail of the painting, the beauty of the crystal orb that Christ holds in his left hand (a symbol of the world) and, most importantly, pentimenti, proved the marks of the master.
Pentimenti? These are preliminary positioning and design that the artist changes in the course of the work. The detail that finally gave the conservators the information they needed was, interestingly enough, was the thumb on Christ’s raised hand. Upon infrared inspection it was discovered that the thumb had originally been in a slightly different position than that on the final work. Further, the pigment’s consistency, the type of media used and the technique all prove, without doubt, that this is the original.
Art experts from Florence to Milan, New York, Washington and Paris studied the restored work and all have agreed; da Vinci’s work. What is still not clear is when or where the painting was completed. Some believe it was painted in Milan around the time of the Last Supper. Others believe that it was painted in Florence after Leonardo moved to the city in 1500.
Regardless, the fascinating and mesmerizing eyes, the finely captured blessing hand and the living and breathing figure we encounter only serve to add further mystery to the works of Leonardo.
After years of studying Italian Renaissance art, I have come to believe that it is Leonardo’s eyes that truly fascinate us. Their hypnotic similarity, their quixotic inscrutability are what draw us in. Give this some thought, a combined photo of an eye of the Salvator Mundi and an eye of the Mona Lisa. Hmmm…