A newly revealed work is the special guest of “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” which opens tomorrow at the National Gallery in London.
The painting is catalogued “Christ as Salvator Mundi” (Christ as savior of the world), dated “about 1499 onwards” and attributed without any qualification to Leonardo (1452-1519). It was sold at auction in 1958 for 45 pounds ($72 at the current exchange rate) and is now estimated at $200 million.
What has led the National Gallery, normally a cautious institution, to take this bold step? Leonardo’s paintings are rare -- totaling around 15, the exact figure depending on which scholar is counting. An addition to that number, accepted by the scholarly world, would be a once-in-a-century event. So what, in the opinion of Luke Syson, curator of the exhibition, makes this an authentic Leonardo?
Ultimately, he said in an interview, the decision comes down to intuition.
“It really just feels right,” Syson said, “powerful, extraordinary, looking like no one else. Christ has real presence -- rather like the Mona Lisa or particularly akin to the Saint John the Baptist in the Louvre -- a combination of feeling as if he’s both really there and incredibly remote. And then there’s an intensity of thought allied with painstaking craft, something entirely unique to Leonardo.”
Attribution is as much an art as a science, yet that intuition is fed by a lot of evidence, some of it scientific. First, as Syson points out, it has always been known that Leonardo probably painted a picture of this subject.
In 1650, the printmaker Wenceslas Hollar made an etching of it, and there are two drawings of the drapery which prove that Leonardo at least planned such a painting. So, as Syson concludes, “the issue is deciding what makes it more a Leonardo than all the other versions.”
There are old repetitions of the design, none of which looked much like the original, including this particular picture, which was known from a bad photograph and had been covered in over-paint. What changed is that it recently was cleaned and studied. In the process, “pentimenti” -- changes in the design -- were found. These indicate an original, rather than a copy.
The picture that emerged is in poor condition. The walnut panel on which it is painted has split, causing pigment to flake off. It also had been aggressively cleaned a long time ago, leaving Christ’s face ghost-like.
Still, some areas, such as the hand blessing and transparent crystal globe, show the extraordinary quality seen in an authentic Leonardo.
“Some of the techniques are absolutely typical,” Syson said, “such as the thinly, delicately painted face contrasting with the more solid and defined hands.”
The face doesn’t have the naturalism of Leonardo’s portraits from the Milan period, such as “The Lady With an Ermine.” It has instead a weird, icon-like quality. That comes, Syson suggests, from a specific moment in Leonardo’s career.
In September 1499, the French army invaded Milan where the artist had been working for 18 years. His patron, the duke of Milan, fled. Leonardo stayed and was commissioned, it seems, to paint pictures for Louis XII of France. The king venerated a mysterious image of Christ known as the Mandylion of Edessa, which was believed to have been imprinted by supernatural means.
The suggestion is that in “Salvator Mundi” Leonardo was instructed to imitate the Mandylion face. If that’s correct, this is a unique combination of the supernatural features of an ancient icon and Leonardo’s equally miraculous skill.
“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” is at the National Gallery, London, from Nov. 9 through Feb. 5, 2012. The exhibition is sponsored by Credit Suisse AG. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)