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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Latest work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: Salvator mundi

London’s National Gallery has launched the largest exhibition ever of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. Included is what is said to be a newly-discovered and authenticated work by Leonardo: “Salvator mundi”—Jesus as Redeemer of the World, to which he gives blessing.

 “A Long Lost Leonardo” 

Under that heading Milton Esterow, of the New York journal Art News, confirmed in August 2011 that Robert Simon, member of a consortium of dealers said to own a newly-rediscovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci, had “confirmed its discovery and authentication,” announcing its impending inclusion in a major exhibition of Leonardo’s works in London’s National Gallery. 

         “Authentication”—by whom, of what qualifications? and on what  attestable evidence?

Its discovery after having been “lost for centuries” had been announced in the same journal two months earlier. Simon had declined to give details, but in July a public relations company issued a statement in his name, declaring that “study and examination of the painting by a number of scholars ‘resulted in an unequivocal consensus that the Salvator mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend.’”  “a number of scholars”—what number, and of what kind? “unequivocal consensus” means only that no-one disagreed. See further, under CONCLUSIONS, below.

The sole difference of opinion appeared to concern when it was painted: “Most,” someone seems to have declared, date it “in the late 1490s,” while Others believe it “slightly later... contemporary with the Mona Lisa.  Most...” —  “Others believe...”  Who are these  anonymous believers?

 “One scholar said, ” apparently to Milton Esterow, that the owners declined an offer of $100 million, telling him “I was told they’re asking $200 million for it;” which Robert Simon is reported to have denied, in these words: “As representative of the owners I can say that the picture is not on the market.”  “One scholar said...” —  “...$100 million” — “I was told.... $200 million for it” — Simon: “I can say that the picture is not on the market.”  — Could the consortium be waiting for a better offer?

He is claimed to have taken the painting to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art two years previously; and “a person close to the Metropolitan ‘who asked not to be identified, is reported as having given (perhaps to Milton Esterow: though it’s unclear), an account of what the painting’s appearance is said to have been when it turned up at auction, yet that “Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble;” and that now it has been cleaned “All agree it was painted by Leonardo.”   “a person close... who asked not to be identified,” and  “All agree...” All of whom?  And why is there no explicit report of proceedings and outcomes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

 “It’s up there with any artistic discovery of the last 100 years,” said one scholar.  Another of those anonymous scholars!

Esterow’s account further reports that the painting was shown in 2010 “to curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Frederick Ilchman, the museum’s curator of paintings, declined to comment.”  Seeing that he declined, why mention him at all, and by name?—unless he had insisted on not being implicated, even by inference or default.

Also, that some time about the first half of 2009, the painting was taken to London’s National Gallery, where “four Leonardo scholars” had been invited, being told “We have something interesting to show you.” They are identified by name as a curator of drawings and paintings at the Metropolitan Museum; a conservator “who directed the restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in Milan; “an author of many books on the Renaissance;” and a notable “professor emeritus of art history...”  Surely the curator must have known of the painting already, being on the Metropolitan Museum’s staff.  “restoration?” That’s a relic. Today’s emphasis is on conservation; letting someone loose to overpaint a damaged work is a thing of the past. Surely!

 “There was a lot of excitement,” said a scholar who was briefed on the session. “Some were somewhat reticent, but there was general acceptance. Christ’s garment is painted in blue with a miraculous softness.”  “A scholar who was briefed...” Why nothing from the actual participants—but only hearsay?  The wording “...somewhat reticent ...general acceptance.” doesn’t seem enthusiastic and unequivocal.

...and apparently added “The ‘Salvator mundi’ theme was popularized by Netherlandish artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer and taken up in Italy during the Renaissance.”  Since when was the German Albrecht Dürer Netherlandish?  “such as Jan van Eyck” might be apt, since he himself painted no such work. But which Netherlandish artists did? As for popularising, though Dürer painted his  sole example in 1500, he seems to have done further work on it nearly twenty years later, which suggests he had not been doing any popularizing of it. The subject did not proliferate in Italy, apart from this present type, and a related variant. For more, see  CONCLUSIONS, below.

Esterow’s informants (who, as reported, seem not to include the named “four Leonardo scholars,”) were apparently communicative, for he is able to recount the painting’s ownership  “according to one source,” by Britain’s Kings Charles I and II; re-appearing in the collection of Sir Francis Cook (1817–1901), exhibited in the 1940s, and sold at Sotheby’s in 1958 for £45.   Perhaps it was owned by Charles I (though seemingly not as a work by Leonardo), yet his collection was sold off by the Puritan government, not inherited by Charles II.  It or one or more replicas have later been ascribed to Leonardo, and the attribution universally rejected. Refer to CONCLUSIONS, below.

Syndicated newspaper reports supply some further bits of information, at times seriously at variance with the above; though some are new—

It is reported that x-rays show the position of the right-hand’s thumb to have been altered, and since the painting’s numerous other versions show that thumb in the same position, this is taken to prove that this is the unique original.  The thumb’s position sends mixed gestural signals. If Jesus is giving a blessing in the name of the Trinity the thumb should be close to the first two fingers. That is thwarted by their ungainly juxtaposition. I can’t imagine Leonardo, a superb delineator of hands, being happy with their appearance. The “crossed-fingers” gesture occurs nowhere else in Christian religious art. See further comment in CONCLUSIONS, below.

The translucent sphere on the figure’s left hand is identified as of rock crystal: “a particular interest of Leonardo’s.”          Leonardo had a demonstrable interest in one kind of “crystalline sphere”—the archetypal human eye. References to rock crystal may be based on Leonardo’s use in Italian of the expression “la spera cristallina” to signify the lens of the eye. I doubt that devotees would have great success in seeking reference to rock crystal among his writings.

Leonardo is said to have been fascinated by the mechanics of vision, exemplified by this painting’s limited “depth of field,” whereby the gesturing hand is more sharply defined than the face, represented as further away from us.          How strange, if this painting is by Leonardo, that there is no perceptibly limited “depth of field” in other works by him, though atmospheric perspective is used for items in the distance. The face has not Mona Lisa’s subtlety, but lacks definition. Hands, mainly consisting of contours, are easy to define; a face in frontal view framed by hair lacks defining contours, except those of slight internal features. The eyes are deadly dull, lacking Leonardo’s characteristic acuity. Leonardo was interested in the whole complex of visual reception and perception, not merely the mechanical factor.

The curls in Christ’s hair are acclaimed as “of incredible delicacy.”  Though at the same distance as the face they are sharply defined, with no “depth of field” effect diminishing their resemblance to lengths of spiral pasta. 

There is said to be evidence that the picture was painted by a left-hander—with the observation that Leonardo was left-handed.  Such claims are disputable—there are many thousands of left-handers with variant techniques, so that (even if accurate) is hardly even circumstantial evidence.

Several studies by Leonardo of drapery are declared to have been drawn specifically for this painting.  That unattested claim takes no account of other possible causes of the similarity. Some are identified in CONCLUSIONS, below.


Just what is a “lost” painting? A picture sold publicly to a named buyer within living memory can hardly be deemed  “lost for centuries” simply because it is not lodged in a public art museum or in the collection of a named “celebrity,” but is in modest private ownership. Nor can its return to the market properly be described as “discovery” justifying its reversion to a previous attribution firmly rejected in the past. Neither can repetition of  the word authentication be taken at face value without knowledge of who takes responsibility for its declaration, on what authority, by what criteria, and on what evidence. There have been many anonymous declarations at second-hand, as detailed above, but nothing amounting to a logically-argued case. Instead, there is “unequivocal consensus”—a customary tactic of chairmanship in which silence is taken as consent.

The mere assertion that this is “the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend” may or may not be accurate, but either way it does not necessarily indicate that it (or any other version) was conceived and painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Christ as Salvator mundi is not one of the favourite pictorial subjects of the time. Nor is any other of the motifs based on the single figure or part-figure of Jesus (e.g. Christ the King, Man of Sorrows, Ecce Homo). They were not popularised in either the Netherlands or Dürer’s Germany; nor noticeably “taken up” in Italy during the Renaissance. The Italian Renaissance had run its course before Leonardo’s death in 1519, and was already being replaced by altogether different artistic tendencies.

It is remarkable that in a lengthy career Leonardo only once depicted the adult Jesus—in “The Last Supper,” painted in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Contrary to past tradition in which the subject was treated as either meditative or sacramental, Leonardo chose the moment when announcement by Jesus that one of the Disciples would betray him created consternation among them. Yet he depicts Jesus serenely detached, and reconciled to his impending fate. What is sublime about “The Last Supper,”  even in its ruined condition, is this portrayal of Jesus. According to anecdotal evidence in the Lives by pioneering art historian and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), Leonardo perceived Christ, as he prepared to paint him, to be a subject “the like of which he did not desire to seek on earth; and could not even think it seemed possible to conceive in the imagination such beauty and celestial grace as could be that of divinity incarnate.”

We do not need to rely on Vasari’s testimony, nor even that of “The Last Supper” in its precarious surviving condition, since Leonardo’s preliminary sketch for Christ’s head survives (Milan, Brera), and is a surpassing model of sensitive feeling and artistic achievement. We can but wonder how the figure of “Salvator mundi” could not only represent the same individual but supposedly be painted by the same artist, so great is the chasm of likeness, empathy, perception and sheer accomplishment between them. No individual in Leonardo’s valid oeuvre is so lacking in definable character; and so at variance with his scientific and artistic standards. Even the physical proportions of this face are reminiscent of medieval practice, which tends to be confirmed by reference to an etched seventeenth-century reproduction (Parthey 217), by Vàclav Hollar—an artist of notable representational skills. The face of this Redeemer is decidedly not of standard Renaissance proportions, and not conformable to those exemplified in Leonardo’s diagram of the internal relationships of the human head (Windsor, Royal Library, no. 12601). Nor is the neck convincing: in both painting and etching it seems to lack defined form, and to be far too broad for the head it supports. As for the head itself, put it among the splendid heads—both drawn and painted—which Leonardo created with such assurance and skill, and it looks paltry indeed.

Comparison of the Hollar etching point by point with the contentious painting shows that it was reproduced freehand, yet there are enough close correspondences to suggest it could derive from this painting—except that the Hollar version is heavily bearded, whereas this is clean-shaven. That could possibly mean there were two almost identical versions, but more likely the beard has somehow been removed. How come? There seems only one possibility. Hollar shows the beard as having been painted hair by hair (rather than as an undifferentiated mass). For such fine detail it was customary to lay the delicate strokes into a thin glaze. That’s how Leonardo created the subtly indefinable and seemingly transient facial expression of Mona Lisa.” It is usual when preparing long-established paintings for the market to employ “picture restorers” to make them more presentable, particularly by removal of old discoloured varnish. I have watched this being done, and observed how it can involve the unintended removal of just such glazes and the detail embedded in them. There is published evidence that a solvent was used on this painting, probably not for the first time. If this is the same painting, that could explain what became of the beard. As for the suggestion that Hollar’s etching indicates that the painting was by Leonardo, though an apparent artist’s proof (on the Internet) has no printed text, a handwritten inscription includes “Leonardus da Vinci pinxit” and “Wenceslaus Hollar fecit” followed by its description as an etching after the original, and what appears to be a dealer’s sale number (overlapping the plate mark).  So in the absence of any further evidence there seems no indication that this represents a painting thought to have been by Leonardo and belonging to the Stuart royal family. Considering Hollar’s adherence to the royalist cause the omission seems quite significant. So there is no substantive evidence that Leonardo ever painted any such subject. Though it is sometimes claimed that one was commissioned in 1504 by Isabella d’Este, her extant commission specifies “uno Christo giovinetto de anni circa duodeci...” [a youthful Christ about twelve years old]. For this image, accurate measurement of the facial proportions as depicted by Hollar also confirms that they do not abide by Leonardo’s normative standard.

Conversion of the origin of the Eucharist into a touching human drama is typical of Leonardo’s indifference to sacramental and sacerdotal themes, and a certain scepticism towards their outward expression, even by physical attitudes. Except for the youthful “Benois Madonna” (St Petersburg, Hermitage), and a possible early Annunciation or two, he refrained from depicting haloes; and those adorning the heads in the second version of “Virgin of the Rocks” (London, National Gallery), plus bestowal on the infant John the Baptist of a rustic cross, certainly do not denote a conjectural late change in his manner, so much as the original commission’s fulfilment—mainly it seems by lesser painters who were his co-partners to the contract.

There are actually two distinct versions of  the “Salvator mundi”  motif, as derived from separate designs. They have in common the complex and unusual gesture of the right hand, and placement of a translucent sphere on the open left hand; but in the alternative variant (an example presented to Scipione Borghese by Pope Paul V in 1611 as by Leonardo but now ascribed to Marco da Oggiono, is now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome), the figure is not dauntingly frontal, but with its more relaxed posture and genial facial expression is more redolent of Leonardo’s manner than is the current candidate for attribution to him. Clearly it is intermediary between the two.

The two versions of Salvator mundi are among nearly 90 works formerly ascribed to Leonardo, and now justly rejected. These two are now generally attributed separately to two artists from small townships in the lakeland region north of Milan: the Borghese type to Marco da Oggiono (c. 1475–c. 1530); that now under consideration to probably Cesare da Sesto (1477–1523). Marco had learnt through working in Leonardo’s Milan studio; while Cesare seems to have benefited from association with Marco—considering the unique similarities between the two versions, despite differences of composition and style. The figure’s right hand in paintings by each, for instance, seems equally clumsy in its consistent combination of the gesture of crossed fingers with that of benediction, regardless of minor variations. Though radiographic evidence is claimed to show that in this example by presumably Cesare the position of the thumb has been changed by repainting, we are not told whether that was to make it nearer to, or farther from the two raised fingers. Since in each version it manifestly maintains the co-existence of two disparate manual signs, each with its distinct signification, it is reasonable to infer that was the purpose.

One is the indicator of Christian blessing, the other a superstitious gesture to ward off evil. The result is not only clumsiness of appearance—anathema to so meticulous a draughtsman as Leonardo—but in both versions induces a physical configuration of the hand anatomically impossible to adopt in terms of skeletal and muscular structure, of which he had unerring first-hand knowledge. The impossibility is confirmed with the aid of numerous volunteers, and applies to both versions. Each of them has numerous variants, apparently to offer variety to potential buyers, yet without abandonment of the awkward dual gesture. In many cases the variants are too crude to have been done by either Marco or Cesare, and indicate that the cultural duality was indeed commercially successful. The crossed-fingers aspect of the gesture, though widely believed to derive from the sign of the Cross, and therefore abjured in Moslem areas nearest to Europe, is widely used in Moslem communities—my Islamic friends tell me—in regions where the two faiths have not been in direct confrontation.

Both these competing images of “Salvator mundi” are generally conspicuous for similarly long rigidly spiralling hair, a style seemingly introduced into northern Italy from the Levant and north Africa through Venice, where artists tended to use it to typify biblical characters, and it became fashionable in sophisticated variations. Dürer for instance adopted it as his personal hair-style during his first visit to Italy, then used it for his 1500 self-portrait as Christ in Judgement. Leonardo, by contrast, depicted the secular version in only a mid-career portrait of a sitter to whom it was presumably the preferred mode. Otherwise the more symbolic alternative style was deployed only for an angel inserted into Verrocchio’s “Baptism” plus another for each of his own early Annunciations (Paris, Louvre; Florence, Uffizi); and at the other end of his career for two paintings of John the Baptist (both: Paris, Louvre), the earlier converted into a Bacchus, another denizen of the wilds. There is no evidence that he used the mode to identify Jesus, whose hair in “The Last Supper” and related drawing is soft and flowing.

Credible attribution of this “Salvator mundi” to Cesare da Sesto puts it at two removes from Leonardo’s manner, via Leonardo’s pupil Marco da Oggiono as Cesare’s likely collaborator. Yet it is claimed that depiction of optical distortion caused by the globe amounts to proof of Leonardo’s authorship, because of his awareness of the refraction of light when passing between the ambient atmospheric medium and another medium with a different refractive index—such as the crystalline globe. Seeing what anyone can see by simply looking at such a globe, or into a clear brook, and painting it convincingly, is not contingent on scientific knowledge. Arguments contrary to such everyday empirical practicality would hardly qualify as reliable evidence. Curiously enough, versions of both types exist in which the sphere is not translucent, but a terrestrial globe with continents and oceans clearly demarcated. That is interesting, since it tends to confirm that the two young artists were indeed in touch with one another. Their distinct terrestrial globes are akin to Leonardo’s conception of the earth as a living geological organism comparable to the human body’s physiological organism—on the prevailing macrocosm–microcosm model. This painting’s treatment of the world as a transparent globe actually seems positive evidence against Leonardo’s authorship.

So why should Leonardo of all people be supposed to have combined in one devotional work so many features otherwise quite foreign to his art? Such an outcome would be incongruously contrary to his outlook and practice, and is not necessary for resolution of the enigma. Singularly common elements in the versions by Marco and Cesare, together with notable influence by Leonardo on the artistic output of each suggests the likelihood of a sustained working relationship between the younger two. That tends to be confirmed by Cesare’s depiction, in common with Marco, of details derived from Leonardo’s archival drapery studies, from which Marco seems to have had ample opportunity to make personal copies. Yet it is clear from the contentious painting’s numerous eccentricities, which do not occur in any known work by Leonardo, that he had no part in production of the resulting works.

And “production” appears to be the operative word, for the output of so many related images, with only inconsequential variations, suggests production line methods regularly conforming to an established precedent; rather than random commissioning of replicas of an admired work which might well not be accessible for accurate copying. Since Cesare’s output seems to have been more numerous than that of Marco, his version with its more sacramental implications and serious expression seems to have had greater appeal. Canny provincials could feel that for the same money they were getting not only a Christian blessing but also pagan immunity from the evil eye, both bestowed by a Christ-figure of great and even stern solemnity.

It is quite conceivable that change to the position of the thumb was made to enhance the dual efficacy of the painting’s supposed talismanic power. But it might be fallacious to claim that this took place with “the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend.” It was common in factory-like conditions for multiples of any given popular image (such as that of a local saint, or well-known biblical incident) to be painted simultaneously for greater efficiency and economy. The introduction from the Netherlands of oil painting induced changes to workshop practice, since to ensure stability of the finished work it was desirable to allow each layer of paint to dry before application of the next, containing a higher proportion of oil (the “fat on lean” principle). Therefore it became usual for multiple works to be painted in batches, the identical or variant work being completed each day on all examples—a practice adopted among modern artists for parallel work even on pictures of divergent subject matter.  So it is anachronistic to assume that there was a solitary prototype. It could have been decided to change the thumb’s location in any number of completed paintings to enable the first two fingers to be crossed without total distancing of the thumb when a resulting doubly symbolic gesture was thought likely to make them more readily saleable. So the x-ray test needed application to many more than one example.

There are numerous troublesome anomalies which annul acceptability of this “Salvator mundi” as a genuine work by Leonardo da Vinci. Here are some of them which do not occur in any of his indubitable paintings: 
   Firstly there is the hieratic frontal pose, which seems contrived and artificial by contrast with the poise and latent dynamism of Leonardo’s authentic figures.
   The disproportionate facial dimensions and daunting frontal stance are similarly disturbing, giving the figure an archaic remoteness which detracts from acceptance of the intrinsic humanity of Jesus.
   The lavish locks of tightly-coiled hair, though widely used to designate biblical figures, are likewise distracting, for they belie both the mild and gentle Christ and his known congenial demeanour (and hair-style) in “The Last Supper.”
   Lack of definition in the face renders it effectively expressionless—an effect not mitigated by claims of Leonardo’s alleged limitation of the painting’s depth of field, not evident in any of his surviving paintings.
   The argument that only a man of science would have known enough to simulate the optical distortion caused by refractive effects might seem plausible—until we all recall having seen the phenomenon in lucid streams or tumblers of water, and realise that what an artist can see, he or she can depict.
   Perhaps we have all crossed fingers when telling a white lie or as part of a playground game, but certainly not as part of conferring a blessing. So the compound gesture might best be explained as a money-making ploy designed to promote sales of the many paintings combining both pagan and Christian benefits.
   As a result, awkwardly unnatural ensuing configuration of the hand makes it anatomically impossible for a normal human hand to replicate the gesture.
   Neither of these oddities and the pagan–Christian incongruity involved  can be traced to Leonardo’s professional practice.
   The very thought of Leonardo’s having engaged in mass-production of populist images appealing to the taste of the peasantry is altogether ludicrous; particularly since with a solitary exception he so avoided painting images of the adult Jesus.
   That is especially the case considering that this Jesus bears no physical resemblance to Leonardo’s, being perceptibly at several removes from his conception.
   It would not be adequate to respond by referring to the list of anonymous claims by numerous unidentified “scholars,” as already encountered. What is required to unravel such complex issues is rigorously sustained and objectively wide-ranging investigation and analysis.

A word of advice: anyone with $200 millions or more to spare, who thinks that a long-lost Leonardo might be just the thing for a wall in the front parlour, would be wise to seek legal advice. It could be that if your Leonardo was bought as “attributed to Leonardo da Vinci,” and the attribution later shown to be inaccurate, there might be no grounds for financial redress. It is fairly easy to obtain attributions, nicely signed and dated. No qualifications required.