“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.

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Imelda And The Savior: Big Fights Afoot In The Art World

​Today I want to share with my readers a couple of stories I’ve been following in the art trade over the last few months:

The first involves former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos – she of the shoe closet of all shoe closets – and the art collection which she amassed with her late husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. When the couple went into exile in Hawaii back in the 1980’s, there was a great deal of speculation regarding what had happened to the assets they had accumulated over their decades in power in The Philippines. Among these was their art collection, which contained numerous works by Old Masters, French Impressionists, and Modernists. Some of the works were catalogued and their whereabouts known, but others had simply vanished.

Now it appears that part of the collection, including a painting by Monet, has been sitting in a warehouse in Brooklyn for years, and a fight is currently underway to decide who actually owns these works. Mrs. Marcos is still very much alive, and an elected Congresswoman in the Philippine government following her return to her home country. Other claimants to the cache include Mrs. Marcos’ former private secretary, the Philippine government, and victims’ funds who want the paintings to be sold and the profits distributed to those persecuted by the Marcos regime. This will be quite an interesting and convoluted case to watch.

The second story involves one of the lawsuits ancillary to the massive fight involving one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, and the Swiss freelance art dealer who helped him amass a seriously impressive art collection. The best overall summary I’ve read on this is a long and absolutely fascinating, well-written and well-researched piece by Sam Knight in The New Yorker back in February, which I’ve recommended to my readers previously (scroll down past my commentary on the Knoedler Gallery scandal.) I again urge you to take the time to read Knight’s piece, as it is highly both informative and a real pleasure to read.

The latest news from this particular debacle involves the prize of the Rybolovlev collection, a newly-rediscovered painting by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting Christ, in an iconographic style known as a “Salvator Mundi” or “Savior of the World”. Da Vinci paintings are extremely rare, and extremely valuable, since only about 15-20 are generally accepted by art experts to be his work. Leonardo was so experimental with his painting techniques, and so easily distracted by his many other projects, that a number of his paintings did not survive the centuries, and in any case his output was always very small. The “Salvator Mundi” is very possibly the only painting by him to remain in private hands, as all of the other works known to be by him are in museums.

In a twist to this ongoing drama, Sotheby’s has preemptively pulled the trigger on a fight between themselves, the art dealers who originally discovered the painting, and Rybolvlev’s art dealer, who sold the piece to his client at a considerable profit. I won’t even pretend to encapsulate all that is going on here, but The Times does a good job at trying to give an overall summary. Like the Marcos case, this promises to be rather a complicated affair – but it will no doubt be absolutely fascinating.

Gnosticism, Ignorance, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

​It seems that in an increasingly faithless age, the Western world cannot get enough of looking for hidden messages in everything. The reprogramming of the History Channel for example, from carefully researched documentaries about actual history, to ridiculous shows about conspiracies involving extra-terrestrials, Bigfoot, or the freemasons – or all three – is but one example of how culturally ignorant and gnostic our society has become. Unfortunately, this wave of secular Gnosticism has also overflowed into our scholarly institutions.

Recently ArtNet ran an article about Leonardo da Vinci and the supposed hidden messages in his famous fresco of “The Last Supper” in Milan, linking to a video on the subject produced by the Smithsonian. Normally, when clicking on such an article, one must take a deep breath before proceeding, and prepare to be astounded by the sheer stupidity that one is about to read. In this case, although I was pleasantly surprised at first, by the end of the piece I was in full eye-roll mode.

The researcher featured in the article/video, Mario Taddei, is a Milanese inventor and Leonardo da Vinci expert. He gained some prominence during the Dan Brown era of about a decade ago, back when the laughably bad book “The Da Vinci Code” was a best-seller, and Tom Hanks had some overdue tax bill to pay which required him to play the lead in the atrocious film of the same name. Since then Taddei has been consulted by a number of media outlets in order for him to comment on, and often debunk, the theories put forward by Brown regarding Leonardo.

To give him credit, in the Smithsonian video Taddei points out that Dan Brown’s theories about the “Last Supper” are utter nonsense. He correctly notes that Leonardo was to some extent restricted in what he was painting by the Christian iconography that preceded his depiction of the Last Supper. The video also points out that hidden letters with obscure meanings could be spotted in virtually any painting ever painted, not just Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. Toward the end of the video however, things go off the rails.  

It is never a good idea to make sweeping generalizations about subjects which you do not understand very well. Thus I am somewhat surprised that the Smithsonian could not simply have called someone over at the National Gallery, before making a rather unfortunate statement in this video. For near the end of the piece, the narrator claims that: “Before Leonardo da Vinci, all versions of the Last Supper showed Jesus and His Disciples with haloes.”
This statement is utterly false.

In Dierc Bouts’ magnificent “Last Supper”, which forms the center panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s in Louvain – a work so coveted by many over the centuries that it was stolen to order by the Nazis during World War II – neither Christ nor any of the Apostles are sporting haloes. The same is true of the “Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno (or more likely by his workshop) which is now in the National Gallery in London, where there is not a single halo to be seen. Even the minor Flemish artist Joos Van Wassenhove painted a halo-less Last Supper for the powerful Montefeltro family, the Dukes of Urbino. All of these works, as it happens, were painted decades before Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.

While it is true that conventionally, representations of the figures at the Last Supper usually had haloes, there were partial exceptions to this rule long before Leonardo. There are countless examples from Byzantine and Romanesque art produced between the 5th and 11th centuries in which the only figure shown with a halo at the Last Supper is Christ. Moreover, many artists before Leonardo never or hardly ever put haloes on their religious figures in any picture, including the great Jan Van Eyck. Thus, Leonardo’s idea was hardly original. 

More curious still is the assertion by Taddei in the film as to why Leonardo chose to omit the haloes.“I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that these people are common people, and this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei comments in the video. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”

It should be noted that, in the early part of his career, Leonardo most certainly did put haloes on his figures. His “Annunciation” of circa 1472-1475 for example, features haloes on both the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and his “Benois Madonna” of 1478 places haloes on the Madonna and Child. It is true that Leonardo later abandoned the practice of painting haloes in all of his religious paintings, but probably not for the reason given by Taddei. After all, while not conclusive, the earliest-known copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, painted by his assistant Giampietrino about 20 years later, has haloes on the figures.

In both versions of Leonardo’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” – one of which is in The Louvre and the other in The National Gallery in London – an angel accompanies the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. John the Baptist. While none of the human figures in the Louvre version have haloes, the angel is surely “extra-terrestrial or supernatural”, yet it does not have a halo either. In the National Gallery version, all of the human figures have haloes, but again the angel does not. Even if the human haloes were added by a later hand, since neither of the angels bear haloes, it is hard to argue that Leonardo abandoned the halo because he was trying to humanize a figure that was, by definition, not a human being. Moreover, throughout art history, angels sometimes wear haloes, and sometimes they do not; this was the case long before Leonardo.  

        
More importantly, putting aside the bizarre use of the term “extra-terrestrial” in the context of analyzing a work of Christian sacred art, Taddei betrays his lack of understanding in saying that there is nothing “supernatural” going on in this scene. For Catholics, and certainly for the Dominican Friars who commissioned Leonardo’s painting, the Last Supper marks the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Leonardo would have known and understood this, as would the men who paid him to paint this picture. He was not simply portraying a meal, like he might a Kiwanis Club banquet in Des Moines, but rather a supernatural event.

Signor Taddei may be many things, but he is neither an art historian nor a theologian. He should be given credit for debunking the nonsense that Dan Brown attempted to pass off as fact, and the Smithsonian should be credited as well for putting together this video allowing him to do so in a concise way. Yet one does not remedy someone else’s chicanery by making easily disproved assertions, nor by presenting half-baked theories based on a poor understanding of the subject matter.