Salvator Mundi is a painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), which has been attributed by leading scholars as a work by Leonardo da Vinci since its rediscovery in 2005.
This attribution has been disputed by other specialists. Long thought lost, it was restored and then exhibited in 2011. The painting shows Christ, in Renaissance dress, giving a benediction with his raised right hand and crossed fingers while holding a crystal sphere in his left hand. The painting was sold at auction by Christie’s in New York, on November 15, 2017, for $450.3 million, setting a new mark for most expensive painting ever sold.
The consortium of art dealers believed there was a possibility that the low quality mess (with its excessive overpainting) might actually be the long missing da Vinci original. They spent the next few years having the painting restored and authenticated as a painting by Leonardo.
Once it was cleaned and restored, the painting was compared with, and found superior to, twenty other versions of Salvator Mundi. It was exhibited by London’s National Gallery during the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan from November 2011 to February 2012. Several features in the painting have led to the positive attribution: a number of pentimenti are evident, most notably the position of the right thumb. Also, sfumato, the unusual technique of pressing down the side of a palm into the paint is typical of many Leonardo works. The way the ringlets of hair and the knotwork across the stole have been handled are also seen as indicative of Leonardo’s style. Furthermore, the pigments and the walnut panel upon which the work was executed are consistent with other Leonardo paintings. Additionally, the hands in the painting are very detailed, something that Leonardo is known for: he would dissect the limbs of the deceased in order to study them and render body parts in an extremely lifelike manner.
One of the world’s leading Leonardo experts Martin Kemp, who helped authenticate the work, said that he knew immediately upon first viewing the restored painting that it was the work of Leonardo: “It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have … that uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest.”
Walter Isaacson in his biography of Leonardo wrote that the orb that Christ is holding does not correspond to the way an orb would realistically look:
In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision, but Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb. Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.
Isaacson believes that this was “a conscious decision on Leonardo’s part”, and speculates that either Leonardo felt a more accurate portrayal would be distracting, or “he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb”.
In 2013, the painting was sold to Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev for US$127.5 million, via the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier.
It was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York in November 2017 for $450,312,500, a new record price for an artwork (hammer price $400 million plus $50.3 million in fees). The purchaser was not disclosed. The new record selling price was 50% higher than the previous record for a painting.