What You Might Not Know About Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi Painting

Only about 20 paintings by famed Renaissance artist Leonard da Vinci are known to exist today, according to The Guardian. So when a potentially new, unknown work by the artist, "Salvator Mundi," surfaced in recent years, the discovery took the art world by storm. People had many questions about this supposed lost work of da Vinci. The painting's title means "savior of the world" in Latin, and it shows Jesus Christ with one hand raised and the other holding an orb. The painting is believed that it may have been created for King Louis XII of France around 1500 (via Smithsonian Magazine). The painting was later owned by England's King Charles I in the 1620s, and then the work dropped out of sight for decades. It surfaced again in the early 1900s, but this time was categorized as a work by Bernardino Luini, an assistant of da Vinci.

In 2005, Alexander Parish and Robert Simon acquired the painting from an auction house in New Orleans. The pair wondered whether it was really da Vinci's handiwork and set out to see if they could get it authenticated, according to the Daily Beast. Art restorer Dianne Modestini was brought in to work on the image, and she expressed support for the possibility of the painting being a da Vinci. Modestini thought that the lips of Christ looked very similar to the "Mona Lisa," a well-known work of da Vinci.

Is Salvator Mundi a real da Vinci?

This unfolding art drama took an interesting turn during the restoration process. According to The Guardian, the cleaning process uncovered that the Christ figure had two right thumbs. This showed that the artist's vision for the work changed during the creative process. A different analysis of the painting showed that the hands and the orb were added at a later date. In 2008, "Salvator Mundi" was shown to a group of da Vinci experts organized by Luke Syson at the National Gallery in London to get their thoughts on the work. The evidence must have been compelling enough for Syson since he chose to include the painting in a 2011 exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci.

With this exhibition, the world had its first glimpse of this allegedly lost work of da Vinci. This also opened the painting to intense scrutiny. Some expressed concerns that the restoration had been too heavy-handed, with one art expert noting that "it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face" (via The Guardian). These worries did little to squash the rising value of "Salvator Mundi." Parish, Simon, and another partner sold it for $83 million to a middleman who turned around and got $127.5 million from Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for it (via the Daily Beast).

Salvator Mundi sells for $450.3 million at auction

"Salvator Mundi" made history in November 2017 when it brought in a record-breaking $450.3 million at auction. At first, the buyer was said to be anonymous, but it was later revealed that the new owner of the painting was the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (via Tatler). Mohammed bin Salman is now known for his alleged support of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who went into exile (via BBC). It's unclear why the Saudi royal, a devoted Muslim, was so interested in a painting of Jesus Christ, but some have speculated that he saw the work as a possible attraction to bring visitors to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

"Salvator Mundi" was supposed to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2018, but these plans fell through. The next year, the painting was supposed to be shown at the original Louvre in Paris as part of a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Again, this so-called last da Vinci was a no-show. So the painting's location remains a mystery to this day. And why keep such a famous work hidden? Maybe because art experts are still debating how much of the work da Vinci actually painted and how much was done by his assistants.  A fresh wave of speculation about the painting and its history came with the release of the 2021 documentary "The Lost Leonardo."