By Alejandro I. López
Leonardo Da Vinci didn’t sign any of his paintings. His name is nowhere to be found in the captivating landscape of “La Gioconda” (1503-1519), nor even in the vast painting that is The Last Supper (1495-1497). The pattern is repeated in the rest of the thirteen currently-known paintings by the Florentine genius—yet another riddle in his already enigmatic life.
As if the shroud of mystery surrounding the Master weren’t enough, a painting once thought lost suddenly appeared at an auction a few years ago, restored, and sold at Christie’s in New York in November 2017. It was acquired by a private collector for the lavish sum of $450 million USD—breaking a historic record.
The painting, known as “Salvator Mundi,” can at first appear uninteresting to the untrained eye. There are no particularly striking details in the background (in fact, the background is quite monochromatic), there is no controversy about who’s depicted—there’s not even a deceiving smile feature in the figure’s face. As you might expect, however, this first impression is but a facade that hides multi-layered symbolism and complex metaphors—as Leonardo would of course have it. So, what secrets does the most expensive painting in history hold?
The mystery of Jesus’ face
The enigmatic face of “Salvator Mundi” depicts none other than [the overly-Westernized version of] Jesus Christ. That much is clear. However, both the painting’s natural wear and Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato technique (which consists in subtly blurring the work’s outlines by applying several thin layers on top of each other) make it more difficult to clearly analyze the figure’s features, which raises an intriguing question: who could be the model behind the painting?
Bear with us for a moment here. This wasn’t a random question. The answer could truly be fascinating, and it was found by inquiring about an even deeper mystery in terms of historical implications: the Turin Shroud.
The Shroud of Turin and Salvator Mundi
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s hypothesis about the origin of the so-called “Sacred Shroud” affirms that, far from belonging to Jesus’ face (scientific testing has shown it actually dates to approximately the 13th century), the shroud is actually nothing but a “proto-photography” made by Leonardo himself.
To prove their theory, the researchers compared the face that results from the relic’s negative and that found on Salvator Mundi. The results were surprising. Picknett and Prince published their results in 2006, showing both were an exact match in geometry and dimensions. Could both the Shroud of Turin and Salvator Mundi be the artist’s self-portraits?
The crystal ball
The figure’s left hand in Salvator Mundi is softly holding an interesting-looking object. What is it supposed to be? Well, in the traditional representations of the “Savior of the World,” it’s typical to find a crystal orb, representing the celestial sphere of the heaving, thus symbolizing God’s supreme power as savior of the entire universe.
But Leonardo’s orb is unique in several ways, starting with what seems unthinkable in a work by the genius: a mistake.
The ball in Salvator Mundi lacks the realistic details of light’s refraction and distortion when going through a crystal sphere. In reality, the orb’s reflection should show a tiny reversed image of the tunic and the hand that holds it. Leonardo knew optics, and possessed a deep understanding (for the time) of refraction and the general behavior of light. He was also obsessive about details. So, why would he go against his own knowledge and impulses in the case of Salvator Mundi? Was it really a matter of carelessness, or is there something else?
The most accepted theory on this issue is that Leonardo deliberately chose to ignore the orb’s reflection in order to somehow represent God’s supremacy and dominance over the laws of the natural order, a miraculous quality that confirms and reinforces His status as Savior of the World.
One of the most characteristic properties of Leonardo’s work is about the naturalistic way in which his subjects are represented. The figures in his paintings simply don’t look forced or awkward: their poses and apparent demeanor blend seamlessly with great proportions, relaxed poses, and seemingly lifelike movements. It is this last quality, the smooth nature of the bodily motions in Leonardo’s paintings, that brings about a welcome realism that pays attention to every detail.
In order to achieve this, every one of the Master’s works that depicts a human figure avoids a pose that fully faces the viewer and instead feature a relaxed position with a slightly-bent neck and shoulders relative to the face.
This characteristic is most obviously found in “Lady with an Ermine” (1489-1490) and “Saint John the Baptist” (1513-1516), and is widely recognized in the “Mona Lisa,” whose classical pose has been copied over and over again. However, “Salvator Mundi” presents a completely frontal posture, which has made several experts doubt whether Leonardo actually painted the work. Many believe that, though he may have collaborated with its production, he simply wasn’t originally in charge of the painting’s composition. Truth is, we might never know for sure.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar
Take a look at these other articles:
100 Of The Most Amazing Paintings In History You Must See In Person
The Extraordinary Life Of Pablo Picasso In 20 Surreal Paintings
The Distorted And Sensuous Art World Of Egon Schiele