The 2021 documentary Savior for sale: Leonardo da Vinci’s lost masterpiece? examines the tortured and controversial history of Salvator Mundia painting of Christ as the Savior of the World (as the name suggests), attributed by many to Leonardo da Vinci.
It is a striking picture, whoever painted it. Christ, his hair hanging in burnished curls over a blue Renaissance robe edged with gold, blesses with his right hand and in his left holds a clear orb.
The controversy surrounding Salvator Mundi
During the 2000s, painting became the subject of much speculation in the art world. Did Leonardo paint it? Was it made by an assistant in his studio? Who repainted certain areas? Was the restoration an improvement or a desecration? What about the possibly sleazy Swiss art dealer who sold it to a Russian oligarch, and did the buyer get scammed?
In 2017, the high-end auction house Christie’s sold Salvator Mundi for a record $450 million to an unknown buyer at the time.
Here’s the auction house’s rather over-the-top sale video (with another Leonardo, diCaprio this time):
In December 2017, The New York Timescommitting an increasingly rare act of excellent investigative journalism, concluded that the buyer was a Saudi prince, apparently acting on behalf of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (the guy President Biden bumped into fist during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia).
MBS (as he is called in the press) supposedly bought it for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates), to exhibit it at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Nowadays, Salvator Mundi has not been seen since the sale. Maybe it’s in a safe. It could be on MBS’s yacht, sailing around the Red Sea. Nobody knows.
Many questions, few answers, in savior for sale
The film, which can be streamed on Hulu and rented on Amazon Video, is a well-done retelling of the entire saga (watch out, there are lots of French subtitles).
It ends with a rather amusing compilation of bizarre fakes of Salvator Mundiincluding one featuring Elon Musk in a space suit.
Apparently there is another very similar documentary, called The lost Leonardowhich streams on STARZ (which I’m not subscribed to, so I haven’t seen it).
Savior for sale: Leonardo da Vinci’s lost masterpiece? raises all sorts of questions about the modern art world, sketchy international finance, and the art and science (and sometimes educated guesswork) of authenticating works.
The question not asked about Salvator Mundi
But there’s one question he doesn’t ask – and it’s a question that came to mind immediately after hearing the news.
Why would a Saudi prince, a member of the royal family of a large Muslim-majority country, shell out so much money for a portrait of Christ as the Savior of the world?
There are possible answers.
It’s a beautiful image (which it is).
It could be a rare “new” Leonardo, and therefore of great appeal to art lovers in general, given that there are less than 20 extant works attributed solely to the artist.
Sometimes rich people want to own something just to know they own it.
I grant you all that, but it still makes me think, especially because the work has still not been exhibited.
Of course, Christians can admire the beauty of Salvator Mundi while bringing a whole additional spiritual dimension.
Others, especially would-be tourists from the increasingly secular populations of Western Europe and North America, may be happy to appreciate art as art, without religious overtones.
But I’m not sure about the local elites or even the general population in MBS’s home region, if that’s where the image is ultimately exposed.
After all, it is not a scene from the part of scripture that is the common heritage of the three Abrahamic religions. It is explicitly and unequivocally Christian, emphasizing the unique position of Christ as Lord of Creation.
I have no idea what the reaction might be if Salvator Mundi ends at the Louvre Abu Dhabi or the surrounding area, but it could get interesting.
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