New Research Suggests ‘Salvator Mundi’ Originally Looked Completely Different

Two separate studies posit that Leonardo da Vinci’s initial composition only featured Christ’s head and shoulders

Close-up view of Salvator Mundi
Two studies, including one conducted by scholars at the Louvre, suggest that Leonardo—or another artist entirely—added Christ's hands and arms to the painting at a later point. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Questions regarding the authenticity of Salvator Mundi, a $450 million painting of Jesus widely attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, have dogged the artwork since its record-breaking sale in November 2017. Now, reports Alison Cole for the Art Newspaper, two separate studies—including one led by the Louvre—add to the mystery surrounding the religious scene, suggesting that key portions of its composition weren’t part of Leonardo’s original design.

As seen today, Salvator Mundi depicts the curly-haired Christ gazing at the viewer as he raises his right hand in a blessing. In his left hand, Jesus cradles a crystal orb that testifies to his position as savior of the world.

The new research raises the possibility that Leonardo’s initial painting only featured Christ’s head and shoulders, theorizing that the figure’s hands and arms were added at a later time. (Some scholars have previously argued otherwise: On her website, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, the curator who restored Salvator Mundi prior to its sale, writes that Leonardo probably painted the “head and the first position of the blessing hand” at the same stage in the work’s creation.)

In their study, Louvre restorers Vincent Delieuvin, Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud—who examined the painting in 2018 with the permission of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture—state that the upper portion of Christ’s right hand was painted directly on top of a black background, which “proves that Leonardo has not envisaged it at the beginning of the pictorial execution,” per the Art Newspaper.

Though the historians initially intended to publish their findings in a book, publication was halted when the painting’s owner declined to loan it for the Louvre’s blockbuster Leonardo exhibition. (The French museum cannot publicly comment on privately owned paintings that it has not yet exhibited.) Interestingly, the Louvre’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez, reportedly states in the unpublished text that he fully supports the work’s attribution to the Italian Old Master.

According to the Art Newspaper, the Louvre team posits that Leonardo himself modified the painting’s composition, inserting the arms and hands “after a time lapse” but still relatively early in the creative process. The second study, however, suggests that these elements are decidedly “not Leonardo,” reports Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic.

New Research Suggests 'Salvator Mundi' Originally Looked Completely Different
In 2017, Salvator Mundi sold at auction for a record-breaking $450.3 million. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Computer scientist Steven J. Frank and art historian Andrea M. Frank are set to publish their analysis in the MIT Press’ Leonardo journal. Drawing on convolutional neural networks (CNNs)—artificial intelligence algorithms used to identify forgeries and misattributed artworks—the paper concludes that Leonardo likely created Christ’s head and shoulders, but not his right arm and hand.

“Artists who employed assistants and taught students (Rembrandt, for example) often directed those who could emulate the master’s technique to paint ‘unimportant’ elements such as hands, either for efficiency or as an exercise,” write the Franks in a preprint version of the study.

Leonardo painted Salvator Mundi­ around 1500, possibly for Louis XII of France, according to Christie’s. Charles I of England had acquired the painting by 1625, but it seemingly disappeared in the late 1600s, only reappearing in the early 20th century, when it was sold as a work by Leonardo follower Bernardino Luini. Later, modern art historians credited the work to one of Leonardo’s assistants, Antonio Boltraffio. Then, in 2011, the National Gallery in London exhibited the painting as a genuine da Vinci, igniting the debate that continues to rage today.

Salvator Mundi was scheduled to make its public debut at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September 2018, but the museum unexpectedly canceled the unveiling, and the painting hasn’t been seen in public since. This hasn’t stopped researchers from working to uncover the artwork’s secrets: In addition to the two studies detailing its composition, scholars have offered explanations for the glass orb’s seemingly inaccurate refraction of light and arguments attributing the work not to the master, but to his studio.

“Leonardo has worked on the painting [and] I think that’s important to recognize,” Matthew Landrus, an art historian at Oxford University who asserts that Luini painted the majority of Salvator Mundi, told CNN’s Oscar Holland and Jacopo Prisco in 2018. “We tend to think in black and white—one or the other, when it comes to attribution, but that's definitely not the tradition. The tradition was to get help from the studio.”