A Da Vinci Painting Recently Discovered (or "On Art's Power Over people")
A new portrait of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, its surprising story, and a video on the bewitching effect it has on those who see it.
Discovering a new painting by Leonardo da Vinci is like the discovery of a new planet. Or so the art critic, Alastair Sooke, described the discovery of a lost portrait of Christ. The work was briefly exhibited last year at Christie’s (London’s most famous auction house) before it was sold by one private collector to another. The history of the painting is fascinating and invites a pointed reflection on the art market but, even more, on the power that a great work of art has on our sensibilities and even our bodies.
Salvator Mundi is the title of this imposing Christ, looking out with deep, supernatural eyes. The technique is impeccable: detailed curls of hair (reminiscent of those on da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist in the Louvre), an orb or transparent sphere (witness to the artist’s obsession with light and optics) and, above all, the sfumato technique that da Vinci took to its maximum expression. No less impressive, the right hand – perfect and in blessing, points to the sky. In fact, this was one of the details which led experts to determine that it was a work of the great Leonardo.
The painting was probably painted in 1499 or 1500, and eventually, in the 17th century, it became part of the collection of King Charles I of England, and from which it was subsequently sold. The painting later returned to the royal collection and then disappeared again until the middle of the 20th century. Until a few years ago, it was believed to be copy of a smaller portrait of Christ which da Vinci was known to have painted. It was actually thought to have been made by an apprentice, or even by the apprentice of an apprentice. In 1958, the painting was auctioned in London and sold for the equivalent of 125 dollars in today’s dollars. Having been restored several times, the painting had layers and layers of other people’s brushstrokes. The penultimate owners of the Salvator Mundi bought it in 2005 in the city of New Orleans. Soon, after they looked for experts to restore it and, after several analyses, and now with the fervent belief that it was an original Leonardo da Vinci, it was taken to the National Gallery of London in 2008. Here, the famous gallery’s experts affirmed that it was, in fact, a painting by the Renaissance master. In 2017, just a few months ago, the Salvator Mundi was auctioned at Christie’s for just over 450 million dollars, the most expensive painting ever sold.
The hand of Christ offered the first proof of authenticity because it showed, when examined with x-rays, what experts call a pentimento, an Italian word meaning “regret” or a “change of mind.” That is, it’s a change made to the painting after it’s been painted. In the case of the Salvator Mundi, the thumb was originally extended just a little more. Later, the painter decided to bend it at the last knuckle. Other “changes of mind” were found in the garment, the jewels and in Christ’s left hand, holding the sphere. No copy of a painting can have these modifications, so it’s known to be an original work. The restoration process involved removing layers of later paint and repairing a crack in the panel. And after all this, the face of the brown-eyed man, covered for centuries, saw light once more.
Final proof that the painting was by Leonardo came with an examination of Christ’s upper lip. Here were the remains of a transfer to the panel from an original drawing. It was a technique that da Vince had used on the Mona Lisa. The artist used a kind of decal by making small holes in the contours of the initial drawing, placing it over the panel and applying powdered pigment which leave a mark when it passes through the small holes in the paper. Finally, sketches of some parts of the painting were found among da Vinci’s drawings.
Only 15 paintings in the world can be said to have been made by Leonardo da Vinci. For that reason alone, finding an original by the artist is an extraordinary event. The fate of this painting – its sales and resales, its interventions, its travels, its prices and its disappearances, ironically enough, tell us something of how the art market works and invite the question, would this painting really be so admired were it not known to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci?
But beyond all the considerations of value and authorship, the essence is in the character depicted. The man’s evanescent gaze and the yellow glow in the eyes, seem to bewitch viewers, as though the divinity of the man who once lived, and who was called Jesus, to some extent, inhabits this painting. Beyond technicalities, proofs of authenticity, or even the fact that the painting was painted by da Vinci, the work has a hypnotic, moving effect, one which recalls Stendhal Syndrome – the condition involving bodily reactions, pain, and even anxiety, when standing before works of art. The director and portraitist, Nadav Kander, was able to capture this in a video of the faces of the public (including Patti Smith and Leonardo Di Caprio) when faced with the powerful eyes of this Christ.
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