Salvator Mundi: The most expensive painting and its controversial associations

Salvator Mundi, digital art made by stable diffusion

As we all know, Leonardo da Vinci was a fantastic artist. The ‘Mona Lisa’ painting was one of his most renowned works, but did you know that there is also one of his paintings that holds the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold? The following article will go through that painting in detail.

Salvator Mundi

The famous artwork we’re going to discuss goes by the title “Salvatore Mundi”, which translates to ‘Savior of the World’ in English. Leonardo da Vinci created this artwork around 1500. This picture features “Jesus Christ”, with long curly hair, holding a non-refracting crystal sphere in his left hand, which represents our globe, and on the other right hand he is making a sign of cross with his fingers. In this artwork, his attire is depicted in blue.

History and Restoration process

Digital art of King Louis XII of France

This picture is believed to have been created for King Louis XII of France and sold to him in 1505. This picture is thought to have been destroyed in the late 1600s. Its records, from 1763 until 1900, are still missing. This artwork has a long list of buyers and sellers, which we will not discuss in this article. So we going to skip that and head to the main event. The main story starts in 2005, when historians Robert Simon and Alex Parish bought the artwork at a small auction in New Orleans. They paid $1,175 for this piece of art. “These guys were fond of buying and collecting antique Italian artworks.” As a result, they decided to include this picture in their art collection as well.

However, uncertainty shrouded their decision as they pondered whether this artwork was truly crafted by the masterful hand of Leonardo da Vinci himself. Their explanation for this was due to the painting’s poor condition. The painting appeared to be quite dull and seems to be repaired and repainted several times. Nonetheless, they were finally got convinced with the painting and eventually bought it. Then they took the painting to “Dianne Modestini”, a famous art restorer who specializes in repairing antiques.

Modestini then started working on it, carefully removing the excessive paint with acetone, this compound is also used in nail polish removers, while doing the process, she noticed that the original painting had unevenness on the face of Jesus Christ. It was scraped away with a sharp knife or blade, then smoothed out with a layer of glue and paint.

 Modestini further observes that in the original artwork, as Christ makes the cross, his thumb is straight in position. However, in the current artwork, his thumb was shown curved. This demonstrates that a lot of overpainting was done to Leonardo’s original artwork. This indicates that this painting is genuine and it is a part of one of his artworks. Her assumptions were further verified using the ‘X-ray fluorescence’ method by matching the visible patterns observed in Salvator mundi artwork with famous artworks like Mona Lisa, St. John the Baptist.

The artwork was centuries old, and the wooden board had begun to deteriorate and infested with wooden worms, so Modestini called “Monica Griesbach”, she was an expert in breathing new life into weathered and worn wooden artifacts. Griesbach meticulously worked her restorative magic, breathing fresh life into the old wooden board. The finished art piece was then later displayed in the National Gallery of London from 2011 to 2012. This artwork was exhibited as ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ signature work. It was later purchased for $75 million in a private auction in 2013 by Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier, it was auctioned by a British-founded American multinational firm.

Illustration of frame infested with wooden worms

Then, Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch, purchased the painting for $ 127.5 million. Rybolovlev is the same guy who paid $95 million for Trump’s well-known beachside Florida residence, Maison de l’Amitie, and profited $50 million from it in just a span of 4 years.

How expensive it was?

The sale of this artwork for $450 million marked an unprecedented moment in the art world, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. It surpassed Paul Gauguin’s ‘When Will You Marry,’ which had held the record since 1892 at $300 million, claiming both the second and first positions among the costliest artworks. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ now stands as a cultural treasure of immense value.

The sale price of $450 million for the artwork significantly exceeds the value of a Boeing 777X private jet, which is priced at $400 million. This striking comparison underscores the exceptional financial achievement of the painting, as it has outpaced the cost of a state-of-the-art aircraft known for its technological sophistication and luxury. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting’s record-breaking price further highlights its status as a rare and highly sought-after masterpiece, capturing the attention of art enthusiasts and the general public alike.

Who is the current owner and why did he bought it?

Christie’s, a well-known auction house, auctioned off this painting in New York in 2017. This auction lasted 20 minutes in all, with the opening bid reaching $100 million and the final bid was closing at $400 million. The purchaser identified as “Badr bin Abdullah”, a Saudi Arabian Prince, and the offer was made via phone call. It was reported that he purchased this artwork on behalf of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for $450 million dollars ($400 million hammer price plus $50 million in fees), stating that he purchased it to exhibit the painting at the “Louvre Abu Dhabi”, an art museum located in Abu Dhabi. 

According to reports, Badr bin Abdullah was only an intermediary who purchased the artwork on behalf of Crown Prince “Mohammed bin Salman”. The main person behind this purchase was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia

Mystery of the orb

Art scholars generally agree that the glass orb in the painting symbolizes the world. However, a notable aspect of contention arises from the way the orb interacts with light. Unlike an actual glass sphere, the orb in the painting does not refract light in the expected manner. This curious optical behavior has led some art historians to cast doubt on Leonardo da Vinci’s authorship of the work. Their argument hinges on the premise that da Vinci, known for his scientific pursuits and keen observations, would likely have depicted the accurate distortion of objects behind a curved glass surface, had he indeed painted the piece.

The mystery deepens as scholars propose various explanations for this departure from optical accuracy. One interpretation, suggested by biographer Walter Isaacson, posits that Leonardo deliberately chose to omit the natural distortion as a conscious artistic choice. Isaacson proposes that this artistic liberty might have been taken to emphasize the miraculous nature of the subject, imbuing it with a sense of wonder that transcends the limitations of optics. Another perspective, put forth by da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp, suggests that the anomaly in the depiction of the orb might have been motivated by religious reverence. In this view, Leonardo might have intentionally avoided distorting the portrait of Christ out of respect for the sacred subject matter.

Recent advancements in technology and digital analysis have also contributed to shedding light on the mystery. Computer scientists from the University of California, Irvine, conducted a study using digital graphics and light simulation programs. Their findings suggest that da Vinci’s rendering of the glass sphere may indeed be accurate after all, challenging the earlier assumptions about the lack of optical fidelity.

Where is the painting right now?

The artwork was last shown in public in 2017 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. However, it has not been publicly displayed since then. Mohammed bin Salman faced a barrage of criticism after purchasing this picture in 2017. His choice was opposed by the people of his country. People questioned how someone could purchase an artwork of Jesus Christ while being associated with Islam.

Some theories suggest that, Mohammed bin Salman after seeing the displeasure from people, kept the painting in one of his yacht. Various conflicts, ownership issues, and theories have surrounded the picture and its present location is still unknown.

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