The National Gallery’s Leonardo show was always going to be a landmark event, assembling more of his paintings than have been seen together since 1939. But when it opens, attention is now bound to focus on what curator Luke Syson describes as “an extraordinary surprise”: the newly discovered Christ as Salvator Mundi. The opinions of other specialists will be eagerly awaited, and if accepted it will be the first addition to Leonardo’s painted oeuvre for nearly a century. The Salvator Mundi may also change our view of Leonardo as a painter.
The Art Newspaper has had early access to Syson’s detailed catalogue entry on the Salvator Mundi, which unequivocally accepts the attribution. He begins by arguing that the cleaned painting is the original (among more than 20 copies) that was etched by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1650. Until recently, this was not obvious because the picture had been damaged and badly restored. It had been “aggressively overcleaned”, possibly as early as the 17th century, with the head being “almost entirely reinvented”.
Even though etched by Hollar, this does not prove it was Leonardo’s original. What leads Syson to accept its autograph status is its quality, as well as the technique, which is “close to that of the Mona Lisa”. The hair, tunic and cloak are painted with “startling delicacy and precision”. There is one feature that only an artist of Leonardo’s stature could create: the orb of Christ, which is depicted as if of rock crystal.
Syson goes on to make an astonishing suggestion about the commissioning of the Salvator Mundi. It was last publicly sold in 1958, when it went for £45 at Sotheby’s, and before that it can be traced back to the English royal collection in the 17th century. The painting was probably brought from France by Henrietta Maria on her marriage to Charles I in 1625.
The face of Christ gives a further clue. His features are similar to those of the Mandylion, an icon of Jesus said to have been created from a cloth pressed against his face. Three early versions of the Mandylion survive, including a 13th-century work in Genoa. Syson points out that the Salvator Mundi, dating from around 1500, was done just after the French seized Genoa in 1499. He therefore speculates that Leonardo may have been commissioned by Louis XII to mark this victory, and that the artist was asked to pay tribute to the Mandylion.
Although given as “private collection”, the owners of the Salvator Mundi include New York dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parish. They have promised the National Gallery that it will not come on to the market in the short term. However, the expectation is that it will be offered for sale in the next few years, when it could well fetch a record price for an Old Master.
The other coup of the show, sponsored by Credit Suisse, is borrowing the Louvre’s The Virgin of the Rocks, 1486, which has never hitherto been loaned. This will offer a unique opportunity to compare it with the National Gallery’s later version. Other loans are coming from the Duke of Buccleuch, the Hermitage, St Petersburg, and the Vatican.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is this a Leonardo?'