Here is Why Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” is the World’s Most Controversial Painting

Back in 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” became the most expensive painting in the world after being sold for $450.3 million at an auction organized by Christie’s. At the same time, it also became the world’s most controversial painting. Here is why.

It is believed that “Salvator Mundi,” depicting Jesus Christ in a blue Renaissance dress while he holds a crystal orb in his left hand and makes a cross with his right hand, was created at some point between 1499 and 1504 as a result of a private commission. The painting was possibly mentioned in the estate of Leonardo’s pupil Salaì in 1525, after which it was considered lost or even destroyed. Around 30 copies made by Leonardo’s pupils and showing the same subject surfaced in the meantime.

 The “Salvator Mundi” sold at Christie’s auction was thought to be one of the copies and was sold as such at an auction in 1958, being attributed to Leonardo’s pupil Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The painting was in bad shape due to overpainting and poor restoration efforts, while its frame was infested by worms. 

Art dealers Alexander Parish and Robert Simon acquired the painting for just over $1,000 in 2005 and, after further inspection, concluded it might be, in fact, the original painting created by Leonardo. They hired famous restoration specialist Dianne Dwyer Modestini to restore the painting. After a successful restoration process, the painting was displayed in the National Gallery in London, UK, as a work by Leonardo after authentication by the museum’s expert.

Through her restoration efforts, Modestini was convinced that the painting was created by none other than Leonardo based on the comparison of the technique used in “Mona Lisa.” Martin Kemp, considered one of the leading Leonardo experts in the world, also attributed the work to the famous painter, as did Vincent Delieuvin, the chief curator of paintings at the Louvre, and Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud from the Louvre’s laboratory C2RMF.

However, a lot of Renaissance art experts and some Leonardo specialists, including art historian Jacques Franck, who had an opportunity to examine “Mona Lisa” out of its frame multiple times, believe that “Salvator Mundi” is the work of Leonardo’s studio with the partial contribution by the Old Master itself. The opinions vary, with some claiming that Leonardo did certain passages and others saying he only did slight retouching. There are some art historians and experts who reject the idea of contributing the painting to Leonardo entirely.

At the moment, “Salvator Mundi” remains a controversial painting for its lack of provenance and opposing opinions on Leonardo’s participation in its making. It is unlikely this will change anytime soon or ever. 

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