It quite possibly is the greatest art historical discovery of our lifetime. A lost Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ. And not just any painting of Jesus Christ but a salvator mundi, or savior of the world.
The last Leonardo painting that was found was discovered one hundred years ago at the Hermitage, making the Salvator Mundi the 16th Leonardo painting that we know of. I would love to see it-- the luminiscence of the chest and forhead--and those eyes, it is so reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, isn't it? And the beautiful textiles remind me of La Belle Ferronniere; his robe in my favorite color, Huizong's shimmering shade of blue.
Scholars had known about the painting from various mentions of it here and there, as well as copies by other artists and preparatory drawings done by the Master himself. The provenance of this work sounds sketchy, but we know it was first mentioned when it entered the royal collection of Charles II in 1649 and then sold a hundred years later when it was put up at auction by his son. It then totally disappeared from the record until 1900, when it entered the collection of Sir Frederick Cook (but by then it had been disfigured by damage but also by the overpaint restorations--that it was a Leonardo had by this time been utterly forgotten). It was in 1958 that the painting made its Atlantic crossing--entering an American collection. For 50 years, we --again---know nothing. But then in 2005, it came up for sale at an estate sale--and it was then that those handling the auction of the painting became intrigued--first by the curls of his hair (like his John the Baptist)--"so very Leonardesque"-- and then, by that orb.
It is extraordinary really. To my eyes (in the images online I have seen so far), the painting has a sublime quality that is reminscent of the Kudara Kannon Statue (百済観音) at Horyuji. Carved (probably by Korean artists) out of a piece of camphor wood, it is gilded in bronze. Like Leonardo's Christ, Kannon holds one hand in blessing, and in the other she holds a vessel containing the "nectar" of compassion. Also like the Leonardo, the Kannon looks straight at you--and yet looks beyond you. The Salvator Mundi--like Kannon-- blesses human kind as he makes his promise to save us.
In addition to the orb (more below), scholars became convinced that no other master could paint hands in that manner. So expressive, graceful --and more, an x-ray inspection revealed that the painter had a "change of heart" and had altered the position of the thumb-- thereby suggesting that this was no copy.
The orb too is extraordinary. While usually orbs are depicted in brass or maybe glass-- for these are terrestrial globes-- Leonardo's was rock crystal. Like a crystal ball, rock crystal symbolized for Leonardo clarity of vision; healing and grace ("saving"); and clairvoyance. Leonardo's Christ was making his promise to heal and to save "the world." Art historians say that at that time period, no one but an artist of Leonardo's skill would have been capable of depicting refraction within the orb as Christ held it-- the world-- in his hand. (Salvator Mundi: It's all Balls).
I am reading a book right now about another "American Leonardo." Did you know that there are more important Italian Renaissance paintings in the United States than anywhere else on earth--except for their country of origin? Of course, most are on the other coast. But even in Southern California, there are a suprising number of Rembrandts. No Leonardos however that I know of.
The American Leonardo is about a famous court battle, Hahn versus Duveen, that ocurred in 1929 over a supposed Leonardo. It had to be the most sensational art trial ever--well at least until the Getty and their recent troubles!
In a nutshell, a Kansas man, who was stationed in France during World War II, returned home with a French bride, who herself was in possession of a painting that she declared to be an original Leonardo. An identical picture attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci is in the Louvre: La Belle Ferroniere.
So, which was the fake?
At the time, American art connoisseurship was dominated by a millionaire art dealer, named Joseph Duveen. And, Duveen pronounced the Hahn's painting was the fake--calling the painting all kinds of names to boot. So, the Hahns sued. For obviously, in one fell swoop Duveen had killed their chances of ever selling their painting--and they wondered, was it fair for him to pass judgement like that without even having inspected it in person? But, he had insisted that he didn't need to see it at all--for the photo alone showed him all he needed to know.
There is so much that is interesting about this book.
It was America's Gilded Age and the millionaire robber barons wanted to buy art. J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller--all these men were Duveen's clients. America was dripping in wealth--but it was still a young country and had no real high culture of its "own." And so the mega-rich of the Gilded Age sought Italian Renaissance art-- in this way buying art was also buying class for the New Barons. At the same time, however, there was also a very strong civic dimension to it. That the art was to be donated to the nation was a given. This was the project. It was thought of as something to both cultivate the American wealthy class (to try and stop the tide of rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption) but also a means for them to help do their part to build the country's cultural standing through massive art donations to America's museums.
These men for the most part did not have a solid background in art and so they all depended utterly on the advice of experts, like Duveen. But the experts received their commissions based on the painting in question's sale--so there was a major conflict in interest since they would benefit substantially by claiming works of art to be worth more than they perhaps really were. Restoration too followed as restorers, with the attribution, would then make their changes accordingly.
See how the last restoration utterly altered the face and the lighting of Salivor Mundi, for example: Salvator Mundi Disclosed and this absolutely amazing video about the restoration--about the glaze and the air bubbles in the orb.
In short, the "expert" became more important in art collecting practices than in any time in history. And for the experts in Gilded Age America, connoisseurship was about--above all-- attribution. The robber barons wanted "names"-- to be connected (individually but also as a nation) to those great giants of Renaissance art. Providence mattered too, but as the experts declared, it was the object itself that was their primary interest. And what gave them their specialist know-how was an immense body of embodied knowledge. That is, the experts went out and examined as many paintings as possible so that, in addition to detailed examinations of technique (say, how a particular painter handled "curls") they worked by an overall sense or intuition which was based on years of actually looking at paintings. The legendary connoisseurs of the time sometimes called it "picture hunting"--for they would devote years sometimes to scouring Italy to "see" and to drink in as many paintings as they could.
Duveen did discuss the scientific evidence-- for example the Hahn painting showed a paucity of expensive pigments (Leonardo just used richer and more costly pigments) but to Duveen, he said he just "knew" it was not a Leonardo and that this was something he felt in his gut based on years of looking at Renaissance art. This was a skillful sensibility achieved by lifetime of aesthetic cultivation that was based on embodied experience (rather than book knowledge or science). Duveen stated it again and again at trial-- aeshetics are everything and that he knew what he was talking about it!
(The jury was not impressed and Duveen ended up having to settle with the Hahns out of court for $60,000 in damages).
Having a good eye is what they call it. And, this detached, de-contextualized objective seeing is straight out of Kant. While there are certainly other traditions with different priorities (for example, see my post Anatomy of an Art Collector for the Japanese and Southeast Asian traditions), it seems almost universal that all people feel that art is uplifting. And that works of art have charisma and power ---and therefore owning them can become a kind of alchemy as well; transforming a person by putting one in touch with powerful exemplary models-- or in the case of Leonardo da Vinci-- with a genius almighty.
Painting above by Zhang Huan, from Q Confucius.