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Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci (authorship issues aside) is a gorgeous painting. The technical details are marvellous, but most of all, Salvator Mundi is a canvas of mysteries. I look at it, and struggle to discern Leonardo Da Vinci’s intention or meaning. Jesus Christ wears Renaissance Italy dress while holding a celestial orb. He raises a finger, making the sign of the Cross, another point of Da Vinci’s brilliance. So many areas of the painting are eye-catching. It’s timeless, a masterpiece from a genius.

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This post aims to explain the brilliance of Salvator Mundi, and convey the importance of it. References will be given to other Da Vinci artworks, but the focus is on Salvator Mundi. Note: this article is written on the presumption that Salvator Mundi is the work of Da Vinci.

I understand some art historians refer to Bernardino Luini, who worked with Leonardo Da Vinci during the High Renaissance.

The Timelessness of Christ

Christ wears Renaissance clothing. Why is this significant? Remember, the Renaissance took place in 1300 – 1600 AD. Jesus’ death was over a thousand years ago. However, we must remember a core part of Christian theology. The presence of a resurrected Christ lingers over, until he ‘comes again’ (Book Of Revelations). By Leonardo Da Vinci featuring Christ in Renaissance clothing, he is suggesting two things. One, that Christ has a presence in Renaissance Italy and in any time until he comes again. Two, Jesus Christ can’t be understood through the lenses of time. Christ is with us, in a way unlike anyone who has died before.

In Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the dressing is more murky. Renaissance or Ancient Rome?

We know Renaissance Italy prided itself on the references to the classical world. But we must remember the importance of Christianity in shaping the Renaissance. The presence of Christ is featured in the Roman Empire, but not to the extent of the Renaissance. A focal point of Christianity is seeing Christ, and God, in everything. Past, present and future. And art, naturally, will reflect that.

What’s striking about the Last Supper is how alone Christ is. His disciples are nearby, but are caught up in other matters, or concerned with betrayal. He appears sad, too. Both in Salvator Mundi and the Last Supper, Jesus Christ is in the centre point. Although different emotions are conjured, we witness the importance of Christ, and His timelessness.

Eyes With A Thousand Meanings

What’s striking about Da Vinci’s painting are the eyes of Jesus Christ. On first glance, they convey little emotion. But look closer. The eyes have a potent, foreboding feel… as if Christ is watching you with all his wisdom. The greatest portraits immerse the viewer into the scene. Imagine in Christ is looking at you the same way in Salvator Mundi. How would you react? The lips of Christ are shut, and with that, the viewer is left wondering what Christ would say to them.

Anatomy art by Leonardo Da Vinci from 1492 on textured background.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s artworks frequently have this power. In one of his most well-known drawings, Vitruvian Man, various degrees of ‘motion’ are suggested to the viewer. What I love about Vitruvian Man is the fusion of science with art. Da Vinci’s devotion to anatomy matches well to his knack for perfect circles, fine figures and detailed features. The eyes are the centrepoint of this. Yes, they appear angry and aggressive. This adds to the unsettling mystery of Da Vinci’s work. He is an artist unafraid to question, and to confront the viewer.

When you look at a Leonardo Da Vinci work, you are witnessing all humanity offers.

Christ’s Blessing

The Sign of the Cross is a core part of Christianity, crucial to understanding how Christians practice their faith. Here, Christ is directly communicating to the viewer / the subject. Although other artists, such as Titian, add more tension to Christ’s blessing (see below), Da Vinci prefers to subdue the energy of Christ’s right hand.

Salvator Mundi by Titian, located in the Hermitage Museum

One of the most attractive features of Salvator Mundi is the blank space above the highest finger. Da Vinci knows how to make the most out of limited space.

Virgin Of The Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci

This is particularly true in The Virgin Of The Rocks. Alot goes on in Da Vinci’s paintings, but he never overwhelms the viewer’s senses. That takes true skill and mastery.

Technical Skill

Leonardo Da Vinci was skilled at drawing and painting. His artworks are proof of that. With Salvator Mundi, we witness Da Vinci’s technical prowess, his unflinching commitment to detail and his dramatic structure of light & darkness. Although the proportions of Jesus have proven controversial: art historians such as Frank Zöllner point out the ‘modern’ style of hair ringlets, where others focus on the marks above Christ’s eyes.  

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci

Less than twenty paintings by Da Vinci have been discovered, frustrating many art historians. We can assume during his time, Da Vinci painted far more. The point is: it’s difficult to fully understand how Da Vinci approached the ‘technical’ side of art. Salvator Mundi has been manipulated throughout its existence. However, I’d argue Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece. This is because of the dramatic tension, particularly in Christ’s eyes and in his right hand. To go further, I have no issue with Leonardo Da Vinci earning acclaim as one of, if not the, greatest artist to ever live.

Often, people assume Da Vinci is overrated because of the praise heaped on the Mona Lisa. But that’s only a small portion of Da Vinci’s genius, and honestly, I prefer Salvator Mundi. The Mona Lisa is proof of Da Vinci’s skill with a brush, and the dimensions of the woman are perfection. However, there’s more drama and energy in Salvator Mundi, Saint Jerome Of The Wilderness and the Adoration of the Magi. But Mona Lisa is still excellent, just not the greatest work by Da Vinci.

The Three Stories Of Leonardo Da Vinci

Rome, Italy – June 13, 2015: Ceiling Fresco by Pierre de Cortone, Palazzo Barberini, in Rome, Italy

A painting’s strength lies in what stories it tells. There must be ‘motion’ or some form of transition or evolution. Looking at Salvator Mundi, it’s easy to presume a lack of story with a motionless Christ. But look further, and ask yourself. What is the most eye-catching aspect of Salvator Mundi? Is it the celestial orb, the space above Christ’s right hand or his eyes? As stated previously, the eyes have a raw intensity about them. The orb is mysterious, whereas the space above Christ’s right hand is uncertain.

Through the painting, various stories emerge. The first one is of Jesus Christ. This is obvious, and it is impossible to understate Christ’s presence, here. The second story is The Renaissance. Although we live in a so-called ‘postmodern’ world, we must acknowledge the influence Christ had in shaping the Renaissance. And finally, the last story features the end days. Where Christ comes again as the Saviour Of The World. This is a crucial point about Christianity. In many ways, Christians are urged to understand Christ’s death and resurrection (the past), but also him coming again (the future). Because of that, Salvator Mundi is the story of Christ.

A Celestial Orb With Prophecies Of Old

blue and purple cosmic sky
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

Christ, in his left hand, holds an orb. Orbs have multiple representations throughout history. One may associate a crystal ball with fortune-telling or scrying (seeing images in the orb). Pop culture blockbusters such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter contribute to these ideas. But we should consider the shape of the orb, a sphere. This could represent the earth, the sun or the moon. To go further, we should look at celestial orbs.

Celestial orbs were developed by Eudoxus, Plato, Aristotle, and others to better understand the cosmological motion of stars and planets. Although belief in celestial orbs did not survive the Scientific revolution, they were common knowledge during the Renaissance. The use of celestial orbs contributed to ongoing debates about theology and philosophy, and questions about God’s place in issues of time. Some drawings of spheres included angels and heaven. Also, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Beatrice and Dante stare the highest heaven in Paradiso.

Leonardo Da Vinci does not validate any of these answers, of course. One can look at the orb and come to their own conclusions about what messages Da Vinci intended. That’s the strength – and beauty- of it. The celestial sphere means a thousand different things, which adds to the richness and depth of the image.

The Saviour Of The World

Salvator Mundi translates to ‘Saviour Of The World’ in Latin. The concept is well-known in Christian eschatology (about the end times). That explains the ‘mystical’ qualities of Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. You can see ‘divine’ influences in the artwork (the blessing), as well as earthly ones (the orb). When one considers the end of the world in the context of Salvator Mundi, one may confuse themselves in whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the end times.

In Da Vinci’s artwork, Jesus’ presence feels almost ominious, and it’s not because Christ is unsettling as a figure. Rather, it’s because Salvator Mundi reveals how little we actually know about the universe and what is to come. Because of that, a Christian may appreciate Christ in Da Vinci’s artwork due an association of calm with Jesus. One of Leonardo Da Vinci’s strengths as an artist is to fuse these conflicting experiences together.

Conclusion

Salvator Mundi is a canvas of mysteries. We do not know the full story behind the painting and its representations. One can look at Christian iconography, Renaissance-era theology or eschatological thinking in the sixteenth century. Either way, the power of Da Vinci’s masterpiece is its fusion of ideas, unsettling emotions, technical skills and religious references.

What are your thoughts on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi? Do you have a favourite work by Da Vinci, or any other Renaissance artist? Comment below!

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