'Mystery' over Leonardo's 'Salvator Mundi'

October 20 2017

Image of 'Mystery' over Leonardo's 'Salvator Mundi'

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art

There was a curious story in The Guardian yesterday about Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. It was headlined, and began, thus:

"Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting.

Crystal sphere in Salvator Mundi artwork lacks optical exactitude, prompting experts to speculate over motive and authenticity."

The story focused on the views of Walter Isaacson, who has just published a new biography of Leonardo. It looks good, and there's an in depth review of it here in The New Yorker. Isaacson was quoted discussing the orb in Christ's hand:

But in a forthcoming study, Leonardo da Vinci: the Biography, Walter Isaacson questions why an artistic genius, scientist, inventor, and engineer showed an “unusual lapse or unwillingness” to link art and science in depicting the orb.

He writes: “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.”

He argues that if Leonardo had accurately depicted the distortions, the palm touching the orb would have remained the way he painted it, but hovering inside the orb would be a reduced and inverted mirror image of Christ’s robes and arm.

All of which might lead you to believe that Issacson did not think the painting was by Leonardo, or at least was raising serious questions. But on his Facebook page, Isaacson writes:

Just to be very clear, this article leaves a bit of a false impression. In my new book, I state clearly and unequivocally that this painting of Salvator Mundi is by Leonardo. And I explore the reasons that he did not show the crystal orb distorting the robes of Christ. I say it was a conscious decision on Leonardo's part. I do not say in my book, nor did I say in the interview, nor do I believe, that anyone but Leonardo painted this painting. I believe he made a decision to paint the crystal orb in a way that is miraculous and not distracting. All of the art experts I know agree, from Martin Kemp to Luke Syson.

So that’s that; nothing to see here. And please don’t be at all persuaded by the attempt, elsewhere in the article, to use Wenceslaus Hollar's engraving of the Salvator Mundi to cast doubt on the painting. It has been suggested that because the engraving shows some small, in some cases actually imperceptible, differences to the painting at Christie’s, then the painting at Christie’s might not be the painting which was engraved. This is fantasy art history. First, such differences reflect more on Hollar’s ability as an engraver than the painting. Second, compare other examples of Hollar’s engravings with the paintings to which they relate and you will see that he regularly altered aspects of the composition. Third, we cannot know how long Hollar had to study the original. Finally, Hollar saw the painting more than one hundred years after it was painted. Who knows what might have happened to it in that period?

Update - for more on the orb in the picture, see Martin Kemp's take here

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