Pretty much everyone in the art world will be holding their breath tomorrow night, as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” hits the auction block in New York.
There’s been a great deal of debate about how a Catholic devotional painting by *THE* Old Master painter of all Old Master painters is going to do at an auction which is primarily focused on Modern and Contemporary Art. Instead of putting the picture in a sale with paintings by other, pre-Modern artists, as would normally be the case, Christie’s took the unusual step of including the painting in an evening event with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, among others. Putting a panel by the greatest painter of the Italian Renaissance alongside the other works in this sale is certainly risky from a business standpoint, which is one reason why Christie’s decided to take the painting on tour prior to tomorrow night’s sale.
As part of its marketing campaign, Christie’s created a video which is by turns both simple and complex, manipulative and disarming. If you’ve not seen it yet, go take a look at it before continuing with this post. It’s fairly short, and definitely worth your time.
There are different ways that we could look at this ad.
One take would be that this is both a highly staged and highly manipulative advert. Some of the reactions seem forced, and it’s particularly telling that we never see the viewers from the back, standing in front of the picture. Even more interestingly, even though the video is a bit over 4 minutes long, we’re never actually shown the painting – not even a tiny detail of it. The viewer keeps waiting for that payoff, but it never comes.
Cynically, we could dismiss this as being further proof that the art world isn’t really interested in the quality or the subject matter of the paintings it sells. Rather, Christie’s is simply adding to the feeding frenzy of society’s current obsession with self-reference, in order to increase the final sales price for this picture and thereby its own commission percentage. But as is often the case with work produced by those who have no great love for Christianity, people of faith can look at this ad in a different way.
We can’t know what all of the people that we see in this ad were thinking about at the time they were filmed. No doubt most of them were simply curious to see a Da Vinci which they had never seen before, in a kind of been-there/done-that fashion. Others in the film are artists, art collectors (Leonardo Di Caprio, for one), and historians, who can look at the picture in a somewhat different way, noticing elements of iconography or technique.
Yet beyond simply recording the reactions of curiosity seekers and the art aficionados, I wonder whether we don’t see something else here, as well. For my bet is, that at least a couple of these people are experiencing one of those moments which comes, not from mere temporal appreciation of others’ outstanding achievements, but in seeing something that transcends the material. Such moments in life, when we’re suspended outside of our linear path, are rare occurrences, and when they do occur they both enthrall and disturb us at a very deep level.
I make this observation because, putting aside the more obvious reaction of one elderly lady who weeps before it, at least a few of the people seem unable to look at the painting straight on. Instead, they turn themselves partly away from it, tilt their heads, and look at it almost out of the corners of their eyes. This seems a very curious reaction, because the picture itself is so stark and unavoidably face on: we see only a single, still figure gazing out at us from a dark background.
In fact, the image’s very stillness, and the reaction of at least some of those whom we see in this video to that stillness, puts me in mind of the Prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13:
Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire – but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah?
On a more pop culture level, it’s also a bit like the scene in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”, when the Fellowship of the Ring arrives at Lothlorien after the loss of Gandalf, and they meet with the Lady Galadriel. There’s a moment in which Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gazes piercingly and unflinchingly into the eyes of Boromir (Sean Bean), to such an extent that he becomes deeply perturbed and cannot look her in the face. She sees what is going on in his heart, and he cannot escape from that exposure of his own selfishness.
Perhaps without intending to do so, Christie’s has created an ad that could be run as a better marketing campaign for the Church than most of those which we see today. Who or what are all of these very different people seeking? And how would each of us answer that same question? To quote Christ Himself, “And you, who do you say that I am?”
If Da Vinci’s painting, half a millennia after it was created, can still provoke such questions in people, even in its somewhat dilapidated state, then this is quite a powerful and invaluable work of art indeed, whatever the final hammer price tomorrow night.