Leonardo da Vinci – The Salvator Mundi

On Wednesday 15th November 2017 Christie’s sale rooms in New York offered a painting of Christ as Saviour of the World by the Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).  The hammer price reached was $400,000,000!

This painting has to be one of the most incredible finds of the 21st century. I was privileged to see it at the National Gallery exhibition of Leonardo’s works in 2011-12.

LdV Salvator
Salvator Mundi 1500. Leonardo Da Vinci (source Wikipedia)


First listed in Abraham van der Doort’s inventory of Charles I’s art collection of 1639 the painting is clearly the same as that described by John Brown in 1877, notwithstanding there is a stamp on the reverse showing it belonged to the Royal Collection.[1] Brown states that Wenceslas Hollar engraved this figure in 1650, and quotes Lépicié’s ‘A Cataloge of the King’s Pictures’ (Paris 1754) who thought this painting as ‘being very feeble’.[2]

The removal of the extra paint layers has revealed a man of gentle features, who looks out of the picture, but with an expression that suggests his mind is elsewhere. In his left hand is a crystal globe; his right is raised in blessing. It is clear that the inspiration is Chapter Four v14 of The First Epistle of St John the Apostle [3]
And we have seen and do testify that the Father hath sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world.”
The author of one of the Christie’s articles about this painting states that da Vinci’s inspiration is the Perruzi altarpiece by Giotto (and workshop) that dates from between 1309 – 1315.

about 1309–15, Giotto di Bondone and His Workshop. Tempera and gilded gesso on poplar panel, 41 5/8 x 98 1/2 in. (105.7 x 250.2 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.7

The Peruzzi altarpiece, (so called because of its association to the powerful Florentine Peruzzi banking family) is now in the North Carolina Museum of Art, but originally it would have been in the family chapel in Santa Croce, Florence.

Giotto was a groundbreaking artist of the 14th century. His natural portrayal of human figures gives the world personal identification with the divine. The central figure in the altarpiece Christ is recognisably human, but the pose as Christ Pantocrator is traditional in the Orthodox Church. We see similar images in mosaic form in San Pudenzia Rome (410 AD).

Christ as pantocrator - Santa pudenzia Rome 410 AD
San Pudenzia, Rome (source Wikipedia)

This is an early Christian mosaic (presumably restored) where the central figure is the enthroned gold nimbed Christ who holds an open copy of the Gospels.
Hagia Sancta Sofia, Istanbul was originally built as a cathedral in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (482-565). Rome had fallen in 476AD and Constantinople became the centre of civilisation. The Greek name Ναός της Αγίας του Θεού Σοφίας, ( in Latin, Naos tēs Hagias tou Theou Sophias) translates as as The Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God.
This mosaic, located in the south gallery, dates to 1261 during the reign of the Emperor Comnenus and shows Christ with a blue robe. The tripart nimbus is traditional.

Hagio san Sofia Istanbul
Christ as Pantocrator: 1261. South Gallery (Source Wikipedia)


Another mosaic as Christ as Pantocrator sits over the Imperial door, used only by emperors. This mosaic dates to the 9th century and here Emperor Leo VI kneels. Christ is flanked by two roundels. To his right his Mother Mary and on the left, the archangel gabriel.

Leo VI
Emperor Leo VI kneels.  Imperial door. Hagia Sophia. Source http://www.hagiasophia.com.

The words “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world” are written on the book held by Christ. 


The mosaicists of the Byzantine empire were masters and much sought after. It is not surprising that the Norman, King Roger II of Sicily is thought to have commissioned Byzantine mosaicists to decorate the Capella Palatina he had started building in 1132.

Palermo Cathedral Sicily
Capella Paletina, Palermo, Sicily. (Source Wikipedia)

As in Hagia Sancta Sophia, Christ is depicted fully bearded, right hand raised in bendiction. Like the Christ in San Pudenzia, He too holds the Gospels open. Both images show a cruciform halo, which is more traditional in the orthodox church; the three golden arms suggesting the Trinity. Unlike the Christ portrayed in the much earlier San Pudenzia mosaic, the right hand is raised in blessing.

In all these images of Christ, including the Perruzi altarpiece, He holds a book, and is shown with a halo, either cruciform or in the earliest image – plain.

Comparison with the Leonardo painting raises questions as to why it is thought the Peruzzi altarpiece might be the inspiration for da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Clearly Giotto took inspiration from Byzantine style mosaics – possibly those in the 6th century Basilica San Vitale, Ravenna, or St Mark’s Venice (completed in the late 13th century).[4] While it is certain that Leonardo would have known the Perruzzi altarpiece, if, as is stated, the altarpiece was the inspiration then clearly Leonardo is being inventive. However, I am not convinced that Leonardo’s inspiration was the Giotto altarpiece. Leonardo’s Christ has no halo and he holds a crystal globe in his left hand, not a book. The raised right hand and the blue robe are the only similarities to the traditional images of Christ as Pantocrator.

So why did Leonardo portray Christ holding a crystal ball?

Not until 1542 was the concept that the world was the centre of the universe challenged by Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, De revolutionibus orbium coelistium was published not long before he died. During da Vinci’s lifetime this theory was not yet formulated so it is unlikely that the ball represents Christ as the centre of the universe.

Perhaps the globe represents the world.

At the time this painting was created, the majority of people believed the world was flat. However, for those who received a Renaissance education and perhaps had studied the works of Pythagoras (6the century BC), Aristotle (382-322BC) and Ptolemy (100-170AD), the concept of a spherical earth would not be new. Ptolemey’s original Greek text of his treatise on astronomy and mathematics, Almagest, had been translated into Arabic during the 9th century and was finally translated back to the original Greek in the 15th century, then into Latin. Knowing da Vinci’s interest in mathematics, it is possible, or even probable that he had read Ptolemy. Unfortunately, details of Leonardo’s early life and education are sketchy.

And why use crystal?

Source: Wikipedia

Clear crystal is a form of quartz and has been highly valued for centuries. It occurs naturally and has been used in jewellery, cameos, carved items such as ewers and jugs. According to Wikipedia, Milan, Florence and Prague were the centre for crystal carving. This carved crystal jug (left) is in the National Museum of Warsaw.

Crystal was used for reliquiaries, amulets, made into crosses all of which creates a link with the sacred.
Leonardo’s enquiring mind was constantly observing and recording. His observations of nature included how water flowed, rock formations and minerals and his interest in optics and how the eye works are all documented in his notebooks. Specifically he tells us of his observations of the effects of light passing through clear crystal or glass as having ‘the same effect as though nothing intervened between the shaded object and the light that falls upon it.’

During the restoration of the da Vinci painting Dr Modestini observed how da Vinci has painted each of the natural inclusions within the crystal globe.  These are so small that she only realised this when looking at the painting under a microscope. This suggests that like Dr Modestini, Leonardo used a lens to paint these natural faults. Each revelation made during the restoration only adds to the reputation of this incredible Renaissance man, if indeed  he created this portrait.

In the National Gallery exhibition catalogue (2011), Larry Keith describes the glazes Leonardo used and how he used the heel of his hand to blur the lines to create the sufmato effect that creates the undeniable air of mystery. What is strange is the comment  in the article advertising the sale of the painting stating the use of lapis is unusual at this time. This is not the case. Contracts from various commissions from the Renaissance have survived and show exactly the amounts and how certain expensive pigments such as lapis were to be used. Scientific analysis on many medieval and illuminated manuscripts and paintings from much earlier than this image, shows expensive lapis is used as the traditional pigment for the Virgin’s robe.  How much of this expensive pigment used in any commission would depend on the depth of the patron’s pocket. Non-invasive pigment analysis of various illuminated manuscripts and paintings show where lapis and other blues such as azurite and smalt is used. Therefore, as with the Virgin’s robe, only the finest lapis could be used for the robe of Christ. [5]

It is possible the painting was commissioned for Louis XII of France who had seized Milan in September of 1499. Some experts believe this painting dates from Leonardo’s late Milanese period i.e. from the 1490s. Leonardo fled to Venice when the French invaded the duchy of Milan in 1499 where he worked as a military engineer and architect – a similar role to that he had performed for the ousted Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Others think that this composition is from even later in the great man’s oeuvre – possibly between 1511-1513. If the painting were painted for the king of France, then Louis XII had pockets deep enough to afford expensive lapis lazuli.

The painting measures 64.5 x 44.7 cms and the wooden panel is walnut. The small size suggests it might have been made for private devotions like those panels painted by the Flemish masters in the 15th century.

There is an unfinished painting of a similar pose and size by Albrecht Dürer in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Dürer is thought to date from 1505.

Durer Salvator Mundi - The Met
Unfinished Salvator Mundi: 1505. Albrecht Durer.  Oil on Linden: 58.1 x 47 cms.

Clearly Dürer is experimenting with the way light passes through the globe, but we see he has abandoned this project. This unfinished image gives us an insight into the preparation and under drawings techniques used by this German master. The entry on the Met website states that this was probably dates from before his trip to Italy undertaken in 1505.

The head of Christ as subject matter inspired many of the Flemish masters. We know of a van Eyck head of Christ only by photograph. Van Eyck died in 1441. Petrus Christus, Rogier van der Weyden all painted small images of Christ for private meditiation and for wealthy clients. None painted an image like Leonardo’s.[6] However, the Durer unfinished painting may well be a copy from his having seen the Salvator Mundi in Leonardo’s workshop – if he visited.

I was reminded of  illuminations created in the Low Countries from the  workshop of Guillaume Vrelant (active from 1441 – d1481/2).

Ms H7 Pierpoint Morgan library f 13v
Ms. H 7 f 13v. (180 x 119mm) The Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Very specifically Ms M H7 held in the Pierpoint Morgan Library collection.  Folio 13v of this manuscript depicts Christ with his right hand raised in benediction and in His left, He holds a crystal globe surmounted by a gold cross.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has another illuminated book known as the Arenberg Hours that also comes from the Vrelant workshop.

Arenburg Hours Getty lA
Willem Vrelant and workshop (Flemish, died 1481, active 1454 – 1481)
Arenberg Hours, 1460 to 1463, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment bound between wood boards covered with purple velvet
Leaf: 25.6 × 17.3 cm (10 1/16 × 6 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles




Vrelant was based in Bruges and active until 1481, therefore even if da Vinci painted his Salvator Mundi in the 1490s, the pose was not new. Vrelant died in 1489. By the latter part of the 15th century Paris had lost it pre-eminence to Bruges as the centre for illuminated manuscripts.
The Morgan library dates their Book of Hours to between 1465 – 1475, so well before the earliest possible date for da Vinci’s beautiful painting. As for the provenance, this can only be taken back as far as the 18th century where it is identified as being owned by the Prunier family because of the bookplate.
The Vrelant hours in the Morgan collection (MS H7) has no jewel, and the vestments are simple. This suggests the artist might be a member of the workshop as opposed to the Master. Again this might be down to cost.

Perhaps in the case of the first image, the patron wanted a book from the Vrelant workshop, but could not afford one from the Master’s brush.

The image on folio 32v of The Arenberg Hours is a much more luxurious version. The marginalia is a stylised floriate design of cornflowers, strawberries, red flowers with five petals and a green ring knecked parrot. The stylised leaves are blue. The globe is banded in gold with a crucifix just like the other Vrelant Christ, but this time, the cross is made from crystal and gold. This artist has made a great effort to reflect the light within the image.

Christ still has the same elaborate three part nimbus as seen in Ms H7, but now the whole image is richer in colour and texture. His blue robe is worn under a red outer robed, lined with a green fabric held together with a gold brooch. This gold brooch houses a man with a spear who appears to be stabbing either a demon or a dragon. An analysis of the text has caused those at the Getty to conclude this book was created for an English client so perhaps this brooch is St George – another clue suggesting it could be for the English market. Unfortunately we have no idea who in England owned it. Thankfully both manuscripts survived the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.

The question is did Leonardo take inspiration from these earlier Flemish manuscripts, or was the Salvator Mundi of his own devising? Likewise it can be argued that Dürer also knew of the Vrelant images.

To be a master of a workshop you had to be a member of the Guild of St Luke and we know that workshops collaborated. It is suggested that Vrelant is one of the contributors to illuminations in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy created in 1480, which brings him into the sphere of some of the great unidentified masters of the late 15th and early 16th century that were also practising in Bruges and Ghent. They are recognised by various manuscripts that have been identified as being from one brush.  The particular Masters associated with Vrelant are The Master of the Dresden Prayerbook active from 1465 – c1515, The Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian active 1475 – c1515 (possibly Alexander Bening), The Master of James IV of Scotland (possibly Gerard Horenbout). Therefore alive and painting at the same time as Leonardo.

Another manuscript in the Getty museum is Ludwix IX 18. This image is attributed to The Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian.

Ludwick Ix 18 f 9 Christ in Majesty
Workshop of Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian (Flemish, active about 1475 – 1515)
Christ in Majesty, about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 × 16.7 cm (9 1/8 × 6 9/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The predominant colours are red and gold. Christ is shown on a gold ground and surrounded by ghostly figures of the heavenly host. His robe is a rich red, with a ruby and pearl brooch holding the robe at the neck. The edge of this robe is embroidered with latin text, very much in the vein of the Van Eyck tradition. As in The Arenberg Hours Christ holds a crystal globe, banded with gold and with a gold and crystal cross surmounting the orb. This artist has take great pains to depict both the reflections and the translucency of the crystal. The hairline is similar to that seen in the da Vinci, but not  in either the unfinished Durer, or the two images from the Vrelant workshop.

The Fitzwilliam has a manuscript (MS 1058-1975) also from 1510-1520. The majority of the illuminations are attributed to the Painter of Ms Additional 15677, with others by The Master of the Dresden Prayerbook and The Master of James IV of Scotland. The Salvator Mundi on folio 13v is attributed to the Painter of Ms Additional 15677.  This manuscript is in the British Library, but to date not digitised.

Ms1058-1975 f13v Painter of Add 15677 Fitz
F13v MS 1058-1975: The Painter of Additional Ms 15677. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Christ is framed in a trompe l’oeuil carved frame. Immediately under the image of Christ is a monochrome scene of Veronica holding up her veil after she has wiped Christ’s face as he walked the road to Golgotha. Miraculously imprinted on the veil was His face, which we see portrayed in the illumination above. Christ’s red robe has gold embroidery and is held by a brooch with a cabachon green jewel.  The da Vinci has a similar shaped brooch with a blue cabachon stone.
The globe, like the Vrelant original, is banded in gold and surmounted by a cross. This cross is much larger than the others and is made of gold. At the crossing point is a red stone. This particular artist was clearly a master of portraying refracted and reflected light.
This manuscript has been undergoing scientific and non-invasive pigment analysis, which has revealed the secrets of this particular illuminator. The illumination on folio iv verso has been overpainted. Using transmitted light, the Cambridge scientists have discovered that the original owner was a cardinal.

Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 19.40.03
Folio iv: Ms 1058-1975. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The decorated green paint hides a coat of arms and a cardinal’s hat. Unfortunately I have not had sight of the hidden coat of arms.[8]

What has not been commented on anywhere, as far as I can ascertain, is the influence these images had for English royal iconography.

In the P on the front of the Coram Rege roll for the Easter law term of 1514 we see the first use of a seated king.(National Archive ref KB27/1011).

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 07.36.33
KB27/1011 The National Archives Kew

 This is five years into the reign of Henry VIII. The front of these records tell us the law term, the monarch and the regnal year. It gives the anonymous artist a chance to play with imagery.  Whether some of these images are at the behest of the judiciary is not known.

In the P of the following Trinity term (National Archive ref KB27/1012) the word Placita is picked out in gold leaf. The image is a narrative showing the king on his throne, holding a sceptre and orb. Two bishops and two lay people are also included. This new concept of the English king appears to be a reflection of the Vrelant image of Christ.

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 07.37.45
KB27/1012 The National Archives, Kew

A modern audience might consider this to be an arrogant portrayal. Dürer’s 1500 self portrait where he depicts himself as a Christ like figure might also appear to be a truly arrogant statement, but that is unlikely to have been his intent. In both instances the image is an homage to the divine. In the case of Dürer he is telling us that his talents are God given and far from being an arrogant portrayal, he is giving thanks for his artistic abilities. Durer self portrait 

The image of the king in the belly of the P, hand on orb and portrayed as a Salvator Mundi style figure is a reminder that the monarch is on the throne by divine right and it is His justice that is recorded in these documents.

The date of the Fitzwilliam manuscript is thought to be between 1510 and 1520. Is it a coincidence that the first image of a English monarch seated on a throne holding an orb is 1514? To which cardinal did this manuscript belong? If the coat of arms turns out to be that of Thomas Wolsey, then it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that the new idea of putting an emblematic image of the monarch into the belly of the P on the front of the Coram Rege rolls was his? This was an age of visual symbolism and the king portrayed as God’s divinely appointed ruler adds to the concept of Henry VIII being on the throne by divine right.

Was the Leonardo Salvator Mundi inspired by the Vrelant concept of Christ as the Saviour of the World, or were the images created independently? It is quite possible that the great Renaissance polymath thought he was producing something completely new and never had sight of the Flemish manuscript images. Perhaps the news of Leonardo’s painting caused Dürer to abandon his idea because he realised that his painting would not be unique?

Perhaps this painting remained in Leonardo’s possession and he took it with him to France?  In which case, then Louis XII may never have ever seen it, but his heir and nephew Francis may have.  We know that Leonardo settled in France in 1516, so did he give it, or lend it to Francis I during his lifetime and after Leonardo’s death it remained in the possessions of the king?  If so, then did Henry VIII see it at any point?  Had his sister Mary, married to Louis XII for a matter of a few months, seen it – that is if Louis had plundered it from Milan?

These are all questions that require further research. In the meantime we hold our breath while this painting is offered for sale on 15th November 2017 in New York.  Who will buy it?

Since writing this piece, we now know the sale price was a staggering $400,000,000 + $50.3million fees!!!  (written at 01.27 GMT 16th November 2017).

©M.V.T. 5th November 2017.

Update:  19th February 2019.  

2019 is 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death and the Louvre are putting on an exhibition to mark his demise.  It was anticipated that the painting would feature in this exhibition in the Paris Louvre, but a row has broken out as it is now considered that the painting is not by Leonardo, but is a fake.  We can but watch and see what the scientists discover and whether or not the painting is from Leonardo’s brush/workshop, or is by a brilliant forger.


[1] Three copies of this inventory exist including a hand written book created for Charles I and are held in the Royal Collection and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

[2] P187 Treatise on Painting: translated by John Francis Rigaud RA. 1877.

[3] In the Christie’s article the quotation is wrongly ascribed to coming from the Gospel of St John. If this had been the case the quote would have been “But the water I shall give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.”

[4] Perhaps Giotto even travelled to Constantinople.

[5] Surviving contracts dating from 1412, 1447, 1452, 1465, 1485 (& others) stipulate the cost of the lapis to be used. Chapter 3 of The Business of Art details these (p66).

[6] Hand, John Oliver: “Salve sancta facies: Some Thoughts on the Iconography of the Head of Christ by Petrus Christus”: Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 27 (1992)


Catalogue of the collection of pictures, medals agates and the like, of King Charles I; RCIN 1047433; Royal Library; Windsor Castle; acquired 1874. Original inventory manuscript Ashmole Ms 1513 & 1514; Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Treatise on Painting: translated from the Italian by John Francis Rigaud RA with a Life of Leonardo and an Account of his Works by John William Brown; George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Garden 1877.

KB27 series: The National Archives, Kew, London.
MS H7 Morgan Pierpont Library, New York, USA
Ms Ludwig IX 18; J P Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA
MS 1058-1975; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.

Secondary Sources
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter to the Court of Milan; exhibition catalogue 2011-2012, National Gallery, London. 2011.
Kemp, Martin; Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design; V&A Publications; Victorian and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 2RI.
Zöllner, Frank; Leonardo da Vinci; The Complete Works, Taschen, Hong Kong, Koln, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo.
Kren, Thomas; Masterpieces of the J P Getty Museum: Illuminated Manuscripts; J P Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, USA: 1997.
T Kren & S McKendrick (eds), Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, Getty Museum/Royal Academy of Arts, 2003.
O’Malley, Michelle; The Business of Art: Contracts & Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy: Yale University Press; New Haven & London; 2005.
Ames-Lewis, Francis; The Intellectual Life of the Earky Renaissance Artist; Yale University Press, New Haven & London; 2000. 2nd printing 2002.
eds Carol M Richardson, Kim W Woods & Michael W Franklin;Renaissance Art Reconsidered – An Anthology of Primary Sources;  Blackwell Publishing in association with the Open University: Open University: Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK: Blackwell Publishing – 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148-0520 USA: 9600 Garsington Street Oxford OX4 2DQ; 550 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia: 2007.
Hand, John Oliver: “Salve sancta facies: Some Thoughts on the Iconography of the Head of Christ by Petrus Christus“: Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 27 (1992) .

http://www.latinvulgate.com accessed 16/10/2017.
http://www.hagiasophia.com accessed 4th November 2017.                                                   Christie’s online magazine promoting the sale of the painting: October 2017.


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