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.

Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris