Leonardo da Vinci had reached the peak of his powers when working on this portrait, and would regularly jump between religious and secular themes, depending on the requirements of the donor. His technical skills as a painter had also been honed over several decades and he was now able to achieve life like images of his models.
The theme of Salvator Mundi was popular in Renaissance art, having first appeared within the work of Flemish artists before becoming popular in Italy too. The image presents Christ as the saviour of the world, and essentially holds our lives in his hands.
Leonardo combined the traditions of this theme with his own technical innovations to provide one of the finest artworks from his career. Sadly, the painting has only recently been attributed to this master, and so for many years would fall under the radar of art historians.
The 20th century brought about a number of significant improvements in how we study and attribute historical art, and this has enabled many mysteries from Da Vinci's career to be solved at last. Considerable preservation work was needed to return this piece to its former glory, and the discoveries made allow us to call it a Leonardo with some certainty.
Many in the mainstream are aware of this piece because of the extraordinary price paid for it at auction, as recently as 2017. Its fortunes have therefore changed somewhat, when for centuries most would refer to it as a somewhat damaged item from one of the master's many followers.
The high profile sale also raised eyebrows in the western world, with wealthy indviduals from around the world now attempting to acquire historical western art for perhaps the first time. In turn, this may lead to a relocation of the greatest art museums and galleries to new locations in the future if this trend is to continue.
This article examines Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi in detail, tracking its lifespan from the early commission from an unknown donor, and its path towards the restored piece that exists today. It suffered in a variety of private collections for a number of years, and we also compare it with some other famous interpretations of the same theme.
Table of Contents
- What is the Meaning of Salvator Mundi?
- How much is the painting worth?
- Size and Medium
- Large Images of Salvator Mundi
What is the Meaning of Salvator Mundi?
Salvator Mundi means "The Saviour of the World" in Latin. It is a type of Christian iconography which was particularly common within Italian and North European art during the Renaissance era. Besides Leonardo, other famous names to have taken this theme into their oeuvres include the likes of Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Durer, Gerard David, Titian, Hans Memling and Carlo Crivelli.
As with all forms of iconography, certain symbols and forms have become related to this theme, and are repeated within most interpretations of the theme. Firstly, Christ typically holds up his right hand as if blessing the viewer, and he also holds an orb in his opposing hand.
The orb will often have a cross shape incorporated into it, but in Leonardo da Vinci's version he allows Christ to slightly cross his fingers in his right hand, which creates the cross shape there instead. The orb represents the world, in Christ's hand, and that he is the saviour who will protect it, and us all.
The donor responsible for commissioning Salvator Mundi is unknown. Many theories have since been put forward, and the most likely of those would be Isabella d'Este, with other names mentioned including Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, Charles VIII of France and Louis XII of France.
France ruled over areas in Northern Italy at the time, and so had a strong influence over Italian regional culture. Isabella d'Este herself was Ferrara-born and firmly involved in the arts, regularly communicating with the great artistic talents across Italy over potential commissions.
Whoever commissioned the piece, at the size that it was produced, as well as the content involved, it was likely intended as a devotional painting, meaning that it would be hung in a personal, private location such as a bedroom, where the owner could reflect on their faith in peace.
Leonardo da Vinci's portrait from circa 1499–1510 is titled Salvator Mundi and features Jesus Christ dressed in a blue robe, with brown detail. His hair is curled at the bottom and hangs down to below his shoulders. He has a light, ungroomed beard and his appearance in entirely in keeping with how western artists portrayed him during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
He holds an orb in his open left hand and holds his right hand upwards, with two fingers crossed in a symbolic gesture. Leonardo provides considerable detail across his clothing, with drapes of material beautifully and accurately delivered, as well as some patterns which run across the brown straps that cut diagonally across his body.
Light is carefully controlled, as always, and guides our eyes purposely. His right hand and face are lit up, bringing attention to those symbolically important parts of the composition. He chooses to leave the entire background dark, bringing a greater focus to Christ, who is drawn forward to the viewer in a similar manner to that found with the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo's influence was so strong within his own lifetime that many copies were made of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi whilst he was still alive. These have also helped historians to date his own piece more accurately. Most of these alternative pieces were completed by his studio assistants, as well as followers based locally.
In restoring the piece in the 20th century, many of these accurate copies were consulted in order to return Leonardo's version to as faithful a state as possible. Artists who produced their own versions between 1503 and 1525 includes the likes of Giampietrino, Cesare da Sesto and Salaì, as well as a good number which are attributed to his studio more generally and not to a specific artist.
The current attribution lies with Leonardo, though some have claimed that elements of the piece may have been completed by members of the master's studio. For most of the painting's lifetime, it had been considered entirely from one of his followers, but a recent restoration threw this idea up in the air.
"...The artist who painted her was the same hand that had painted the Salvator Mundi..."
Dianne Dwyer Modestini
Once the over painting, added well after Leonardo's own contribution, had been removed, experts were finally able to see the raw artwork, albeit with considerable signs of wear and tear. Although some disapproved of the restoration work, we do now have an adundance of technical information regarding the work and a better idea of how it would have originally looked.
As part of the research project, the piece was compared to all of the copies which appeared from a variety of sources. This version was considered far superior, and the facial features were particularly impressive. The expert's knowledge of Leonardo's other portraits led them to believe that it must also have come from his hand, and it was only some of the lesser significant detail in the painting that might possibly have been completed by one of his colleagues.
In the late 20th century, a number of historians started to argue that this painting may actually be a Leonardo original. A large amount of over painting, which had been added some years after the master's own work, was then removed as part of a complex restoration project. This allowed experts to see the bare-bones of the work, and even study it through x-ray technology.
The rejected theory appeared now to be true, and the next task was to restore the piece to how it was originally intended to look. Once this was complete, an attribution to Leonardo da Vinci was confirmed, and from that point onwards the value of the painting rose, and continued to saw through future sales.
The item was solid in May 2013 for $75 million, but by 2017 its value had risen to an astounding $450 million. Some will likely continue to question the attribution of the piece, as well as being critical of the restoration work completed in recent years, but the mainstream have now mainly accepted this as a Leonardo and debate over his work is far from unusual.
The current location of Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci is unknown, but it is likely to be in storage, potentially awaiting the construction of a purpose-built art venue. Some had expected it to be stored at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but this now seems unlikely.
There appear to be plans in place to promote Al-'Ula as a viable destination for international tourism, and the inclusion of the painting in a cultural centre here may happen in the future, though many alternative theories about the item's future have also been put forward, with no confirmation yet on any.
How much is the painting worth?
Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi was sold at auction in 2017 for $450,312,500. It's present value today would likely be around the same level as that. The price realised would have risen due to the rarity with which Da Vinci's paintings come up for sale at auction, as well as the international and historical appeal of his work.
Prior to the sale, the piece had been displayed in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York, as great efforts were made to market the piece and maximise its value. This would be one of the highest profile auction purchases in history, and most Leonardo paintings are today protected against sale by national law, in order to protect the cultural assets of the respective country.
Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi is loosely dated to around 1499–1510. It would therefore have been completed after The Last Supper, and at around the same time as his early work on the Mona Lisa. Clearly, the artist was at the peak of his powers by this stage, within the painting discipline.
The project was probably commissioned in around the year 1500, and scholars disagree over when the painting was actually executed, and so the range of 1499-1510 does not mean it took ten years of work, but rather that it took two or three years of work at some point in that period.
The artist regularly worked in phases, sometimes leaving untouched for months, and this meant that some projects could drag on for quite some time. There were multiple reasons for this, such as a desire to continually try out new projects and other disciplines, as well as political interference or other issues outside of his control that might cause him to temporarily cease work.
In late 2017 the painting was purchased at auction by Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is currently owned by Mohammad bin Salman, but its precise whereabouts are unknown.
The early years of this painting, soon after Da Vinci had completed it, are unclear. Several inventories have mentioned portraits of Salvator Mundi, but we also know that a number of copies of it were made and we cannot be sure whether these documents are referring to Da Vinci's original version or not.
For around a century little is known about the path of this painting, but we can track it to the collection of James Hamilton in London in the 1640s. It would then pass through the ownership of a number of significant individuals across the 17th century, including Henrietta Maria, Charles I, Charles II and James II.
Into the 20th century and the piece was still changing hands between wealthy British collectors, fairly regularly. It was attributed to a follower of Leonardo throughout this period, and so was slightly more affordable than it would be today, with the firm attribution to Da Vinci only arriving relatively recently.
Size and Medium
Salvator Mundi was completed using oil on walnut panel. It is sized at 45.4 cm in width, by 65.6 cm in height (19.2 in × 25.8 in). This can be considered a fairly standard size for Leonardo da Vinci's single figure portraits, and he only tended to use larger wood panels when adding more complex compositions.
In those cases, he might even glue several panels together, as larger individual ones were quite hard to source. The artist made use of a variety of wood types for his panels, with walnut and popular perhaps being the most common of all. Again, much would depend on what was available at the time.
Large Images of Salvator Mundi
The subtlety within this portrait is extraordinary, and smaller images of it will never do justice to the achievements made by the artist all those centuries ago. Therefore, we have included larger images below which at least convey a little more of the intricate brushwork delivered by Leonardo da Vinci.
For those looking to see the painting even more closely, you might consider purchasing one the excellent publications which feature large prints of the original work, such as the one mentioned in our references section below.