Salvator Mundi is a painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”) by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, dated to c. 1500. The painting shows Jesus, in Renaissance dress, giving a benediction with his right hand raised and two fingers extended, while holding a transparent rock crystal orb in his left hand, signaling his role as savior of the world and master of the cosmos, and representing the ‘crystalline sphere‘ of the heavens, as it was perceived during the Renaissance. Around 20 other versions of the work are known, by students and followers of Leonardo. Preparatory chalk and ink drawings of the drapery by Leonardo are held in the Royal Collection.
Long thought to be a copy of a lost original, veiled with overpainting, it was restored, rediscovered, and included in a major Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, London, in 2011–12. Although several leading scholars consider it to be an original work by Leonardo da Vinci, this attribution has been disputed by other specialists.
It is one of fewer than 20 known works by Leonardo, and was the only one to remain in a private collection. It was sold at auction by Christie’s in New York to Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Farhan on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism on 15 November 2017, for $450.3 million, setting a new record for most expensive painting ever sold. The painting is to be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi may have been painted for Louis XII of France and his consort, Anne of Brittany. It was probably commissioned around 1500, shortly after Louis conquered the Duchy of Milan and took control of Genoa in the Second Italian War. Leonardo himself moved from Milan to Florence in 1500.
It may have come to England with Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I of England in 1625, and it seems to have remained in her private chambers at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Wenceslaus Hollar made an engraving of the painting, published in Antwerp in 1650 with the inscription Leonardus da Vinci pinxit (Latin for ‘Leonardo da Vinci painted it’).
Charles I was executed in 1649 at the end of the English Civil War, and the painting was included in a 1649 inventory of the Royal Collection, valued at £30. Charles’s possessions were sold under the English Commonwealth, and the painting was sold in 1651 to John Stone, a mason, to settle a debt, but it was returned to Charles II of England after the English Restoration in 1660, and included in an inventory of Charles’s possessions at the Palace of Whitehall in 1666. It was inherited by James II of England and may then have passed to his mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, whose illegitimate daughter with James became the third wife of John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby. His own illegitimate son, Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, 1st Baronet, auctioned the painting in 1763 along with other artworks from Buckingham House, when the building was sold to George III.
The painting then disappeared from the records until it was bought by a British collector, Francis Cook, 1st Viscount of Monserrate, in 1900, for his collection at Doughty House in Richmond. The painting was damaged from previous restoration attempts, and has been attributed to a follower of Leonardo, Bernardino Luini. Cook’s great grandson, Sir Francis Cook, 4th Baronet, sold it at auction in 1958 for £45, as a work by Leonardo’s pupil Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The painting remained attributed to Boltraffio until 2011.
Rediscovery and Restoration:
In 2005, the painting was acquired for less than $10,000 (€8,450) at an auction in New Orleans by a consortium of art dealers that included Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters. It had been heavily overpainted so it looked like a copy, and was, before restoration, described as “a wreck, dark and gloomy”.
The consortium believed there was a possibility that the low quality mess (with its excessive overpainting) might actually be the long missing da Vinci original. They spent the next few years having the painting restored by Dianne Dwyer Modestini at New York University and authenticated as a painting by Leonardo. From November 2011 through February 2012, the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery as a work by Leonardo da Vinci.[a]
In May 2013, the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier purchased the painting for just over US$75 million (in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s, New York). The painting was then sold to Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev for US$127.5 million. This sale—along with several other sales Bouvier made to Rybolovlev—created a legal dispute between Rybolovlev and Bouvier.
It was exhibited in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York in 2017, and then sold at auction at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 for $450,312,500, a new record price for an artwork (hammer price $400 million plus $50.3 million in fees). The purchaser was identified as Saudi Arabian prince Badr bin Abdullah. In December 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Prince Badr was in fact an intermediary for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the true buyer. However, Christie’s confirmed that Prince Badr acted on behalf of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.[b]