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Did Leonardo da Vinci paint 'Salvator Mundi'?

November 8, 2011 |  3:45 pm

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), "Salvator Mundi" detail
When the unprecedented exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" opens Wednesday at the National Gallery in London, extraordinary opportunities will also open up. Nine of the Renaissance master's paintings -- more than half his surviving output -- have been assembled from Milan; Rome; Paris; St. Petersburg; Krakow, Poland; and elsewhere. The roughly 50 drawings, two-thirds from Britain's royal collection and many directly related to those paintings, comprise an extraordinary show within a show. Leonardo's two large versions of "The Virgin of the Rocks" -- one from the Louvre in Paris, the other from the National Gallery's own collection -- are together facing each other in the same room, an event that didn't happen in the artist's own lifetime.

And then there is "Salvator Mundi" (Savior of the World), a painting known for many years but only recently attributed by some Renaissance scholars to Leonardo. Hanging in the last room, the panel with the roughly life-size bust of Christ, here dated to around 1499 or after, provides a remarkable finale to a show that would be remarkable without it.

But was it actually painted by Leonardo?

Oil on Walnut 66 x 47 cm, Salvator Mundi, about 1500 Leonardo da Vinci  1452-1519That's the question many art historians will be coming to London to answer for themselves before the exhibition closes Feb. 5. Research over the last seven years, technical and otherwise, yields strong evidence that it is. And the exhibition does not hedge in labeling it as an autograph picture by Leonardo.

It also presents a rare chance to see the work in the best possible way -- in the context of other documented paintings by the artist's hand, which facilitates comparison. That opportunity has not existed before now, for despite -- and perhaps because of -- Leonardo da Vinci's unique and monumental role in the history of European art, there has never before been an exhibition of his extremely rare paintings. Looking at the dark and moody image of the face of Christ, right hand raised in benediction, left hand holding a transparent orb and eyes softly blurred as if they, too, were crystal portals into a soul, it is almost as if the painting is offering a challenge.

This much is certain: If "Salvator Mundi" is not by Leonardo, then it was painted by an unknown follower or student of truly amazing gifts. And who could such a brilliant mystery-person be? Frankly, that possibility is even harder to imagine than accepting the new attribution.

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-- Christopher Knight, reporting from London

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), "Salvator Mundi," (top: detail; bottom: full panel), about 1499 or after, oil on walnut. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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