Salvator Mundi

It is believed that seventy-five percent of Leonardo's works have been lost to us so therefore any new discovery causes great excitement and serves to alter our view of his art. An excellent example of this is Salvator Mundi, (literal meaning: 'Saviour of the World'), which is now considered to be authentic.

Louis XII started negotiating with Leonardo in 1506 and the painting was finished, as much as it would ever be, by 1513. It was delivered after the Queen's death and so Louis decided he would donate it to the religious order connected with her in Nantes. A century later Queen Henrietta Maria of England saw the painting and had an etching made of it by Hollar, to add to a series of famous paintings he was doing for her. In the nineteenth century the convent was dissolved and the painting sold on to Baron de Lareinty of Paris; he had it until 1902 when it was again sold, this time to Comtesse de Béhague. It has remained in the family having been passed onto his nephew and then to his son, Jean Louis de Ganay.

Various tests and close examination has convinced experts this painting is genuine. Monochromatic sodium lighting, infra-red and ultra-violet tests were performed and, along with x-rays, these have revealed a number of interesting details:

    • The pearls around the jewel have been altered.
    • A cross has been removed from the orb (not very successfully).
    • Leonardo deviated from his basic sketch very little. Infra-red tests showed up the original sketch behind the painting.
    • X-rays show the paint has been applied in layers on a wooden base. This technique was used often by Leonardo during his last five years of work.
    • A thick coat of varnish has been added.

    Nut wood was used for Salvator Mundi, the same as used on St. John the Baptist. The triangular composition, light angles, facial shadows and hair swirls are typical of many of Leonardo's paintings, while the colours used are reminiscent of the Last Supper

    Typical of Leonardo, many of the objects in this painting have a deeper significance which is not at first obvious to the eye:

    The eight-pointed centre star signifies resurrection and corresponds to the eight lines of the threads found on the stole.The ruby represents martyrdom and passion. An unusual vestment tuck seen on the right-hand side of the stole signifies the lance piercing Christ's side. What we now see as a globe was originally an orb (when surmounted by the cross); it probably recalls the words, "I am the Light of the world."The stole symbolises the Voice of Immortality. Catholic priests don stoles as a sign of accepting the New Covenant.

    Salvator Mundi -- Collection of the Marquis de Ganay, Paris
    Salvator Mundi
    Collection of the Marquis de Ganay, Paris

    Vasari, known for his wonderful description of the Mona Lisa even though he had not laid eyes on it, also described Salvator Mundi:

    "In his head, whoever wished to see how closely art could imitate nature, was able to comprehend it with ease, for in it were counterfeited all the minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted. Seeing that the eyes had that lustre and watery sheenwhich are always seen in life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints, as well as the lashes, which cannot be represented without the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the skin, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth, with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse. And, indeed, it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every valiant craftsman, be he who he may, tremble and lose heart."

    Not a bad description considering that Vasari also never sighted this work!