The National Gallery in England will be having the first public showing of a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci work, Salvator Mundi, which was created in the late 15th or early 16th century. It will be featured during the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition, from November 9, 2011 to February 5, 2012.
The Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) depicts a half-length figure of Christ facing frontally, holding a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right in blessing. One of some 15 surviving Leonardo oil paintings, this is the first time that one of his painting’s was discovered since 1909, when the Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, came to light.
Leonardo’s painting of the Salvator Mundi was long known to have existed, but was presumed to have been destroyed. The composition was documented in two preparatory drawings by Leonardo and more than 20 painted copies by students and followers of the artist, as well as a meticulous 1650 etching made after the original painting by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar.
The recently rediscovered painting was first recorded in the art collection of King Charles I of England in 1649. It was sold after his death, returned to the Crown upon the accession of Charles II, and later passed to the collection of the Duke of Buckingham, whose son put it at auction in 1763 following the sale of Buckingham House (now Palace) to the King. All trace of the work was then lost until 1900, when the picture was acquired by Sir Frederick Cook, but by then the painting had been damaged, disfigured by overpaint, and its authorship by Leonardo forgotten.
For the remainder of the 20th century, the painting was part of an American collection until it was sold following the death of a family member. In 2005, the painting was brought to Robert Simon, an art historian and private art dealer in New York for study and research.
The painting was clearly a work of considerable quality and interest, and although there was then no serious belief that it might be by Leonardo himself, it was decided to treat the work with the highest standards of professional care. A comprehensive program to examine, treat, and study the Salvator Mundi was soon begun. Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Paintings Conservator for the Samuel H. Kress Program at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, supervised the overall conservation of the painting and undertook the cleaning and restoration of the paint surface. At the same time, Robert Simon began research into the painting’s provenance, its relationship to other versions of the composition, and its connection with Leonardo’s painted and drawn works, especially the preparatory drawings at Windsor.
After nearly seven years of focused scholarship, conservation, technical analyses, and consultations among scholars, this extensive process has recovered a long-obscured, yet extraordinary work of art of undeniable importance and beauty.
The principal reason that the painting remained unrecognized for so long was the crude overpaint that until recently obscured much of its surface. The wood panel upon which Leonardo painted had at one point split and bowed. Previous restoration attempts had involved large areas of stucco fill; thinning, flattening, and gluing of the panel to another backing; and attempts to disguise the repairs with broad areas of crude repaint.
The recent conservation treatment has remedied and repaired these underlying problems, but the results of hundreds of years of mistreatment are still evident. The principal panel split can still be noted curving around and to the left Christ’s head; the rich dark background has survived in irregular passages, and local areas of paint loss and abrasion are scattered throughout the painting, as is typical of many works from the period. The recent restoration of the painting has attempted to minimize the visual impact of these damages with a minimal amount of restoration to those areas where losses occurred.
After an extensive conservation treatment, the painting was examined by a series of international scholars. Their consensus is that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend. Individual opinions vary slightly in the matter of dating. Most place the painting at the end of Leonardo’s Milanese period in the late 1490s, contemporary with the completion of the Last Supper. Others believe it to be slightly later, painted in Florence (where Leonardo moved in 1500), contemporary with the Mona Lisa.
The reasons these scholars are convinced the painting is by Leonardo are several. Among the most significant are the painting’s adherence in style to Leonardo’s known paintings; the extraordinary quality of its execution; the relationship of the painting to the two autograph drawings at Windsor; its correspondence to the composition of the “Salvator Mundi” documented in Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1650 etching; and its manifest superiority to the more than 20 painted known versions of the composition.
Further crucial evidence for Leonardo’s authorship was provided by the discovery of pentimenti – preliminary compositional ideas, subsequently changed by the artist in the finished painting, but not reflected in the etching or other copies. The most prominent of these – a first position for the thumb in the blessing hand, more vertical than that in the finished picture – was uncovered and photographed during the conservation process. Other pentimenti have been observed through infrared imaging. Technical examinations and analyses have demonstrated the consistency of the pigments, media, and technique discovered in the Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo.
Italian art expert Pietro Marani told the Daily Mail, “We were given a day to examine it and it was all the time we needed – we could tell at once that it was a work by Da Vinci and the documentation and analysis proved it beyond doubt. This is very significant and very exciting.
“It was only after the painting was restored that its true history emerged, the hair and eyebrows which had been added were removed and it was very clear. There are lots of copies of this painting and it was popular for Da Vinci’s students to paint but this is undoubtedly by his own hand – the colours are wonderful. The blues and the reds in the painting are very similar to those of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the pigment is also very similar to his Virgin on the Rocks painting.”
The last time this painting was sold in 1958 it was described as a work by Leonardo’s student Boltraffio and was sold at auction for 45 pounds. Although the current owners are not willing to sell the work, the value of it has been estimated to be over $200 million.
Yale University Press will publish a scholarly monograph on the painting, titled The Lost Christ of Leonardo da Vinci, later this year.