Since the record-breaking sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) for $450 million in 2017, there has been no shortage of theories challenging its authenticity — from attributions to an assistant in Leonardo’s studio, to one’s scholar assertion that the figure’s face has been deliberately restored to resemble the “Mona Lisa.”
A recent investigation of “Salvator Mundi” conducted by the Louvre, as well as a separate independent examination, now offer a new avenue for skepticism: sections of the work may not have been part of the Italian Renaissance master’s initial design. First reported by the Art Newspaper, the findings suggest that the likeness of Jesus Christ was originally conceived as a head and shoulders only, with the right arm and hand, raised in a blessing, likely painted later on.
The independent analysis, undertaken by computer scientist Steven Frank and art historian Andrea Frank, goes as far as to say that these particular areas are distinctly “not Leonardo.” Using image recognition and classification algorithms known as convolutional neural networks (CNNs), the pair determined that the head and upper portion of the figure are seemingly Leonardo’s work, but the right arm and hand are likely not. The results of their research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Leonardo (MIT Press), focused on the intersection of art and technology.
The Louvre’s examination is slightly more forgiving, avowing that the blessing arm and hand were added posteriorly but allowing for the possibility that they were done by Leonardo’s hand. According to the museum’s experts, the upper section of the right hand was painted directly on top of the work’s black background, unlike the other elements, demonstrating that “Leonardo has not envisaged it at the beginning of the pictorial execution.”
The Louvre’s investigation dates from 2018. Its findings were originally slated to be included in a book whose publication was canceled when the loan of the painting to the museum was suspended. The Art Newspaper‘s report is based on its review of several unpublished copies of the book.
The anonymous bidder who acquired “Salvator Mundi” at a Christie’s auction was later revealed to be Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a friend and ally of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A month after the sale, the Abu Dhabi culture department agreed to lend the painting to the new local Louvre museum, but the work mysteriously disappeared before its scheduled unveiling in September 2018. It has not been publicly seen to this day, though there have been reported sightings of the painting on the Crown Prince’s yacht. Last year, the Saudi Arabian government said it was keeping the work in storage and would build a museum to exhibit it.
Multiple scholars have raised issues with Christ’s blessing gesture in “Salvator Mundi.” In an article for the London Review of Books last year, British art historian Charles Hope noted that attributions of the work to Leonardo rely heavily on analyses of the painting’s best-preserved areas, among them Christ’s right hand.
“But is it realistic to suppose that art historians in the 21st century can be sure that these sections are by Leonardo himself, rather than by some skilled assistant?” Hope asked. “To paint them no invention was required, merely manual skill of a high order, and an attribution made largely on the basis of these passages alone can hardly be taken seriously.”