$450 mn Da Vinci painting bought by Saudi monarch has art world divided

Controversy about its origins dogs spectacular da Vinci painting Salvatore Mundi

The Saudi monarch bought Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of Jesus Christ called Salvatore Mundi at an auction in New York in 2017 for $450 million.

Ever since Saudi monarch and ruler Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) bought the famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ called Salvatore Mundi (Saviour of the World) at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2017 for $450 million, it has been dogged by controversy about its authenticity. When the Louvre at Abu Dhabi cancelled an announced display of the painting in 2018, the murmurs got even louder and have not stopped.

Now a French TV documentary The Savior for Sale, scheduled to be aired this week, says that MBS wanted the French Louvre to lie about the authenticity of the painting to save him the humiliation of having spent $450 million on what some experts say is a painting done by Leonardo’s disciples and only fined by the master himself. According to Forbes, the documentary, quoting French officials, will reveal that MBS wanted it to be displayed by the side of Mona Lisa as a fully authentic Leonardo, which the French officials refused.

The art world is divided on the origins of the painting with more doubts being cast after the auction than before it. The main argument against it is that it is primarily the work of his assistant Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio with only “small retouchings by Leonardo”.

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But there are equally compelling reasons to believe that it was Leonardo himself who conceptualised the painting, going by the techniques used in the painting. Walter Isaacson, biographer of Leonardo, is categorical in declaring that Salvatore Mundi is a work by the great master. Isaacson used historical trail and views by experts to confirm these facts. Following is his convincing reasoning, though it is true that many copies were made including engravings of the painting:

Historical evidence

* A painting Christ in the manner of God the Father exists in the inventory of the estate of Salai, Leonardo’s male partner and assistant. The same painting has also been catalogued in the collection of Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649, and also Charles II.

* The painting reappeared in 1900 when it was acquired by a British collector. But by that time it was heavily overpainted and varnished and experts, then, too, attributed it to Boltraffio.

* After 2005, it was bought by a consortium of art dealers and the painting was restored under the supervision of Manhattan art historian Robert Simon who, in turn, showed the painting to top experts such as Nicolas Penny, then director of London Art Gallery, and Carmen Bambach of Metropolitan Museum and others. Martin Kemp, Leonardo expert who had authenticated another Leonardo, La Bella Principia said: “It had the kind of presence that Leonardos have”.

Also read: Germany to return painting stolen by Nazis to Italy

Technical reasons

* High resolution photos and X-rays revealed that the thumb of Jesus’ right hand had been placed differently in the initial painting. Why would a copy artist do that?

* The painting is done on walnut wood just like other Leonardos of the period in many thin layers of “almost translucent paint”.

* Irregular pleats of Christ’s blue cloak are on Leonardo’s preparatory drawings.

* The circular orb which Christ holds in his hand was also a Leonardo favourite due to his interest in optics. Only in this painting the orb does not show images inverted as it should have and the master knew about it. Maybe it was deliberate.

* Fingers pointing towards heaven is seen in many Leonardo paintings including John the Baptist and some disciples in ‘The Last Supper’.

The French documentary will again spark interest in Leonardo da Vinci and the painting. It is however difficult to understand why MBS would want a certificate from Louvre about its authenticity when many others experts have done so.