What does “SM” stand for in the context of Leonardo da Vinci? The obvious answer is the $450 million painting of the frontal Salvator blessing with one hand while the other cradles a rock-crystal sphere of the mundus (actually the cosmos rather than the customary globe). In reality, as happens with Leonardo’s productions, our visual engagement with the painting has been skewed by fictionalised stories, lurid journalism, and attributional vitriol. For me, SM now stands for “Sensationalised Mess.” How the painting actually works as a devotional image, what it means, and how it embodies Leonardo’s science and art have become lost.
It is beginning to be appropriated in the public mind alongside the Mona Lisa. It is remarkable how far in the few years since its sale it has caught up on that most iconic of portraits. Humorous and pious rip-offs appear in increasing numbers, bearing witness to the power of the image. There is a lot of merchandise. We find it featuring impressively on an Anatolian rug, and for those with deeper pockets a micro-mosaic version is available for €180,000!
Of the filmed and TV productions, pride of place goes to Andreas Koefoed’s stylish The Lost Leonardo. It begins and continues with cleverly staged shots, not least of mysterious interiors, often damp and penumbral, featuring grotesque figures from the art world, self-caricatured even beyond Daumier’s imagination. The star ego is that of Jerry Saltz, who declares triumphantly that all the known Leonardo’s are “heavily documented.” This is spectacularly untrue. We only need think of the Munich Madonna, which came into the Museum off the streets and was initially thought be by Verrocchio. Later in the film, Saltz brandishes a stiff rod to beat a reproduction of the Salvator in an act of ugly theatre, shouting that it is a “marked-up piece of junk.” I was astonished to discover he is a prize-winning critic.
Andreas’s film is populated by clusters of monster egos, a good number of whom attribute the present appearance of the picture to Dianne Modestini, the conservator who diplomatically ensured that areas of paint loss did not destroy the effect of the picture. “Most of the painting is re-made”—or variations of this claim—emerge repeatedly through ignorant mouths. In reality it is less “re-made” than the Last Supper.
Not the least bizarre figure is that of Yves Bouvier, maestro of free-ports (taxation-free havens for “investments”), whose self-confessed bending of the truth when he sold the painting to Dmitri Ryboloflev with a $ 47.5 million markup, is matched by his skills on a monocycle.
It is news when a loud-mouth can claim that the world’s most expensive picture is not by the master. It is news when it is seemingly in the luxury liner of a mega-rich Arab. It is not news when Leonardo’s authorship is recognised with rational arguments. Not much prominence was given to the scientific examinations conducted for the Louvre in advance of the great exhibition in Paris. This evidence is presented in an impressive book printed for the Louvre but not officially released when the museum failed to borrow the Salvator. I have a PDF of this rarest book, in which the director, Jean-Luc Martinez, declares unequivocally that the Salvator Mundi, from the former Cook collection and now owned by the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was studied by the museum and C2RMF in 2018. The results of the historical and scientific study presented in this book fully confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo’s picture continues to stray beyond the media devoted to the arts. Not the least of the stories is the continuing court case that pits Rybolovlev against Bouvier. The dealer-cum-free-porter, Bouvier, seems to thinks that all is fair in love and the art jungle. His Russian customer believes he has been taken for an illegal ride.
Perhaps the most important question is the current whereabouts of the painting. The statement by Martinez seems to be true, and it is likely that the masterpiece will be housed in a Saudi museum within the next two years.
My overwhelming feeling is “poor picture.” It deserves better.
Discover more about Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in this three-part blog series.
Featured image: The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci