Salvator Mundi to be unveiled at Louvre Abu Dhabi on 18 September (but is it any good?)

As expected, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi will go on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi after the summer. The date: 18 September.

Chairman of DCT – Abu Dhabi Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak said: “Salvator Mundi represents an important chapter in the history of art, and offers a fully-rounded view of his artistic output. It will play a significant role in Louvre Abu Dhabi’s curatorial narrative, representing a critical moment of historical change that illuminates social evolution at that time”.

He also pointed out that “the Salvator Mundi highlights the inclusive nature of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s narrative and Abu Dhabi’s mission to promote a message of acceptance, and openness”. This is after all as Christian an image as you could find: even the title – ‘saviour of the world’ – could be regarded as blasphemous by fundamentalist Islam.

The question of the painting’s ownership is a delectable backstory that we can put to bed. The work had been sold for $450m (plus fees) at Christie’s in New York on 15 November last year to an unnamed buyer; the New York Times reported that this was in fact Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, subsequently nominated as Saudi Arabia’s first minister of culture. Then the Wall Street Journal said the buyer was actually Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and that he had bought the Leonardo through an intermediary; as it happens, Bader bin Abdullah is a close associate of his.

But almost immediately the Louvre Abu Dhabi said it had “acquired” the work for display, and this form of words is used again in the press release announcing the Louvre Abu Dhabi unveiling date. We checked what this actually means, and were told explicitly that “the Salvator Mundi was bought (acquired) by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi through a proxy buyer, and it is owned by DCT Abu Dhabi”.

So that’s clear. And it seems there’s an explanation for the Saudi connection, if it exists: “The acquisition of artworks commonly involves ‘proxy’ bidders and buyers to maintain anonymity of the purchasing entity”.

Not that the chain of ownership matters much, anyway: as Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak said, “It is an opportunity for Abu Dhabi’s residents and visitors from around the world to engage with a rare and iconic work of great cultural significance at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Lost and hidden for so long in private hands, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece is now our gift to the world. It belongs to all of us, who will have the chance to stand before it, and bear witness to the mastery of one of the most significant artists in living history.”

What you could have won: the pre-restored and heavily touched-up version with natty tash

But there’s more mileage to the Salvator Mundi, for its history is fascinating. Dating from around 1500 and one of fewer than 20 paintings by the Italian Renaissance master that are known to have survived, Salvator Mundi is thought to be roughly contemporaneous with the rather fine La Belle Ferronnière – already on show at Louvre Abu Dhabi, thanks to a 12-months loan from the Louvre in Paris.

Salvator Mundi was possibly painted for Louis XII of France and brought to England by Queen Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I in 1625. The work was certainly recorded in a 1649 inventory of royal possessions after Charles’ execution and reputedly ended up in in the collection of John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. He famously built Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace).

Although the painting was apparently showing its age and had been touched up by various restorers, it was still recognisable in 1763 when Sheffield’s son sold it (for about $500 in today’s money). Whereupon it disappeared until 1900, when a British collector bought the work; by then it had been heavily overpainted and was attributed to Leonardo’s student Bernardino Luini rather than the master. It stayed in the family, clearly unloved, until it was sold in 1958 to an American collector for the equivalent of $90. By then it was attributed to Giovanni Boltraffio, another of Leonardo’s students.

And finally it got some overdue respect: an art consortium bought it for $10,000 in 2005, thinking it cheap even for a school-of-Leonardo copy, and sent it for restoration. It looked so good that the owners decided to check with at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London, and in 2011 it was exhibited as a genuine Leonardo at the National Gallery in Washington DC.

Two years later it was sold it to Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier for $80 million — a pleasant 8,000 times what the consortium had paid for it. Bouvier moved it on quickly, selling it for $127 million to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev; and it’s Rybolovlev who sold Salvator Mundi at Christie’s in 2017.

Detail of the left hand and the orb, complete with three floating stars and masterly refraction

So, is it any good? Some say that the confused provenance muddies the waters – “there’s as much Leonardo in this Salvator Mundi as there is actual real wrestling in the WWE“ said one expert, advancing Boltraffio as the more likely painter. Against that, other suitably qualified experts have indeed authenticated the work as Leonardo’s.

More significantly, the undoubtedly high levels of retouching could mean there’s very little left of Leonardo’s actual handwork. As the New York Times critic Jason Farago put it, “the painting now appears in some limbo state between its original form and an exacting, though partially imagined, rehabilitation”. He also said it seemed to him to be “a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations”.

Perhaps there are 450 million arguments against that view, though the extravagant price for what Christie’s somewhat OTT promotion called “the male Mona Lisa” says more about the wealth of the few and the infinitesimally small number of Leonardos that they could spend it on.

At least we have the chance to see for ourselves what all the fuss is/was about. And there’s real interest to be found in the image: the figure does have an unreadable, slightly unsettling, expression and an almost-smile that does indeed suggest the Mona Lisa.

It also looks distinctly human rather than god-like, with no crowns or accompanying angels. It’s been described as a religious masterpiece painted by an atheist. After all, Vasari called Leonardo “so heretical that he believed in no God whatsoever”. So if it’s a genuine Leonardo, it probably isn’t a genuine expression of his thoughts and feelings.

The face appears in a ghostly mist, almost like an apparition; but the folds of the cloak are very real. The elaborately braided knotwork on Christ’s garment – reminiscent of Islamic patterns, interestingly – is a complex design formed by a single, unbroken thread, a symbol of eternity that indicates a thinking mind at work (and Leonardo was nothing if not a thinker). Maybe the same kind of intellectual content applies to the three floating dots of light in the crystal ball, an echo perhaps of the three fingers on the other hand that so clearly represent the Trinity.

But is that hand particularly well painted? Are the fingers … well, right? And why isn’t the orb (presumably a piece of polished rock crystal) more lustrous? But then it does have some clever and rather beautiful light on the left hand, especially the refractions showing through the orb.

All this is mostly academic chaff, of course. As an observer – and not as a collector, speculator, or an owner of Old Masters – you’ll have the chance to make up your own mind about the painting. It won’t matter who owns it, or even who painted it.

We understand that after a spell on show at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the painting will be lent to the Louvre in Paris for a blockbuster exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death (that show runs 24 October 2019 to 24 February 2020).

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