On Nov. 15, 2017, the painting Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World, photo 1) was sold for US$450 million (approx. NT$14 billion) at Christies New York, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.
The painting’s buyer is believed to have been a member of the Saudi royal family, and it was originally to be put on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September last year. However, not only were those plans cancelled, this year it was revealed that the painting’s whereabouts are unknown.
What kind of painting can command such a high price? For starters, it has been linked to Leonardo da Vinci, and it is being hailed as the “Male Mona Lisa.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
According to records, Louis XII of France commissioned the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) to paint Salvator Mundi. The theme of Christ giving blessings to the world was a common one at the time. The Christ figure in this work has his right index and middle fingers crossed in a gesture representing the giving of blessings, while the left hand is holding a crystal ball, symbolizing the world.
Da Vinci never signed his works. This, and the fact that he had diverse interests and was endlessly experimenting — and his paintings were often abandoned halfway through, or later destroyed — means that there are now only 19 of his works extant.
Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi has become something of a Holy Grail in art history, sporadically appearing, only to disappear once more.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
There are various theories as to why Salvator Mundi has disappeared this time. One is that experts have concerns over its authenticity. When it was rediscovered in 2005, it was in poor condition (photo 2). One of the reasons for this was that the wooden panel on which it was painted contained a large knot, which had caused the painting to become warped over time. Experts find it difficult to believe that da Vinci, who was so fastidious with technique, would have chosen to use this wood as a surface to paint on.
There are also experts who doubt that da Vinci would have painted a portrait such as the Salvator Mundi square on, in what is quite a formalistic pose. The Mona Lisa (photo 3), by comparison, is posed at a slight angle to the viewer, her left arm leaning against the chair to suggest movement, with the background painted in, using da Vinci’s aerial perspective to express a feeling of space and distance.
The experts who believe the Salvator Mundi is genuine point to the Mona Lisa-esque smile on Christ’s face, a feature common in the majority of da Vinci’s portraits from this period. In addition, Christ’s hair has indications of da Vinci’s trademark brushwork, with the soft vitality and realistic feel it brings.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In this work many factors conspire to ensure that its price is elevated in the art market: the attribution of da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance artist, the fact that it depicts Christ, and the fact that it has been rediscovered after having been lost for so long. The price is determined by the logic of supply and demand. Regardless of whether or not the painting is an authentic da Vinci, the desire to own one of the artist’s works remains strong today, 500 year’s after da Vinci’s death.
(Translated by Paul Cooper)
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