WASHINGTON — It was thrilling to see, last month, an exquisite painting epitomizing Christian theology — a priceless portrait of faith and science — declared the most valuable object on earth by the free market.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Christ the Savior of the World) sold at auction for $450.3 million Nov. 15, trampling the record set three years ago, when Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for $179 million.
So, who secured the treasure? Will it be displayed in a museum for all to behold or squirreled away in a luxury safe?
The new owner of the long lost Leonardo was not immediately identified by Christie’s auction house, but Dec. 6, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (citing U.S. intelligence sources) revealed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman financed the purchase.
In a dubious turn, the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., now denies the crown prince’s direct involvement, claiming his cousin purchased it for the United Arab Emirates.
Either way, Christian devotional paintings such as Salvator Mundi are forbidden by sharia (Islamic law) and illegal in Saudi Arabia. The prospect of the Saudi elite controlling this treasure should bring dismay to those who comprehend what truly makes the work priceless.
Six Years to Restore
Although some said the small Leonardo was overpriced, considering damage that took over six years to restore — including removal of an awkward beard and facial hair — its rarity alone was bound to push prices to astronomical levels.
Only 15 other paintings by the Renaissance master are known to exist, and Salvator Mundi was said to be the only one in private hands. The last time a Leonardo emerged from oblivion was in 1909, before communism: Held by a Russian family, it was acquired for the Hermitage Museum.
In Salvator Mundi, a half portrait of an astonishingly realistic Jesus Christ gazing straight at the viewer was painted in about 1500.
Renaissance artists like Leonardo, virtually all Catholic, painted Christ to emphasize his humanity, underscoring their conviction that God lives in us — that creativity, and the pursuit of knowledge, is evidence of the divine in humanity.
As Renaissance scholar Leonardo Bruni (and secretary to the papal chancery) wrote in the 15th century, “A man can, in fact, have knowledge of an almost infinite number of things, provided he is willing to spend time studying them. He has, surely, a mind that partakes of the Divine Mind, and he is, as it were, a mortal god.”
Leonardo da Vinci both believed, and painted, this conviction.
In the painting, Christ is holding a translucent crystal orb in his left hand, while his right hand is raised in a three-finger blessing.
More typically in Christian art, God the Father is shown holding an orb as symbol of the world. By giving Jesus the globe, the artist is merging the identity of Father and Son, echoing the theology of the Holy Trinity.
Yet the picture also acknowledges their separate identities: God the Father created the world — the orb as a self-contained ecosystem — while the Son blessed the world (Galatians 3:14) by offering us salvation.
The blessing hand is the composition’s most distinct element and appears closest to the viewer, because in time, Christ’s passion is more recent than the creation of the world.
Where is the third Person of God, the Holy Spirit?
One can read the painting in another way, to assign to its three major elements — head, blessing hand and orb — Trinitarian identities: the head of Jesus, the hand of God who blesses his creation in Genesis (1:28), and the breath of Spirit animating the planet.
The Holy Trinity is also referenced by triangles that abound in Salvator Mundi.
Look at the orb: Three distinct white dots sit on the perfect crystal’s surface, symbolizing the Holy Trinity: The world is the embodiment of the Trinity.
Another (inverted) triangle is evident in the brown decorative border of Christ’s tunic, directly in the center of the lower half of the painting.
Studying Christ’s face, less distinct than his right hand or the orb, the viewer finds another perfect triangle by mentally sketching a line above Christ’s eyes and two more from the point of his outer eyes down to his chin.
Dianne Dwyer Modestini, the conservationist who worked six years on restoring the painting, said, “I felt a whole slipstream of artistry and genius and some sort of otherworldliness that I’ll never experience again.”
Leonardo was mesmerized by geometry as a manifestation of the invisible and rational plan of God’s creation.
He illustrated an influential treatise, On the Divine Proportion, composed in about 1498 and printed in 1509, the same period as Salvator Mundi was completed. Ostensibly a book on math, it had a much wider cultural and intellectual impact.
The book explores mathematical proportion in geometry, visual art and architecture, especially explaining the concept of “Divine Proportion,” more commonly called the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. Simply put, it can be found when the relationship between two unequal segments of a line equal the irrational number 1.6180339887… to infinity — a number called phi and considered by Leonardo and many others to be sacred.
Examples of the Golden Mean can be found in Salvator Mundi, if you imagine an invisible rectangle around Christ’s head, blessing hand and orb. For each invisible rectangle, the proportion of the longer side to the shorter side is 1.618 …
Why is this number so important? Incredibly, it reoccurs in a fantastic array of patterns in nature, from the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower’s face to the spiral of leaves on a plant to the shape of a rhinoceros horn or a nautilus shell.
Science and Faith
The reoccurrence of this “sacred number” is considered a reflection of God’s omnipotence and the order of his universe — a conviction that led Christians such as Leonardo da Vinci to investigate the empirical world scientifically, through observation and by recording data.
Leonardo is considered the quintessential “Renaissance Man” because he was an artist as well as an engineer and scientist. He studied human anatomy by dissecting cadavers and determined the heart is a muscle with four chambers. He studied birds, sketched a flying machine and the first parachute. He invented artillery. He rerouted canals. His experiments in optics yielded insights into perspective that appear in his paintings.
Research he did on crystals is reflected in his precise rendering of the orb: The three dots are realistic bubbles, called “inclusions,” that appear in pure crystal — besides signifying the Trinity.
Knowing about minerals, the artist insisted on using a rare and expensive ultramarine pigment made of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan for the blue tunic Christ wears in Salvator Mundi. Only a famous and well-connected artist could obtain ultramarine of such high quality — a fact considered more evidence that Leonardo was its maker.
For Leonardo da Vinci, faith and reason are complementary; knowledge and art are inseparable.
The beautiful convergence of Christian ontology and scientific truth is what makes Salvator Mundi a masterpiece affirmed by its stratospheric price tag.
Salvator Mundi was probably commissioned by French King Louis XII as a devotional painting for a private chapel, based on its size (just 26 inches by 19 inches) and resemblance to an Orthodox icon.
If such a religious painting of Christ was found today in Saudi Arabia, it could be confiscated and destroyed as illegal, along with Bibles and rosary beads.
Those who try to convert to Christianity from Islam risk public execution.
Catholic guest workers in Saudi Arabia — and there are millions — are denied places of worship, since churches are forbidden, which is a major reason the Holy See has no diplomatic relations with the country.
That’s what makes the news that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bought the painting through close friend, distant cousin and Saudi officeholder Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud ironic and distressing.
The branch of Islam dominant in the kingdom is Wahhabism, which is closely linked to the ideology of the most extremist factions in the Muslim world. When the Islamic State group (ISIS) blew up cathedrals and churches in Iraq and Syria and murdered and kidnapped priests and Christian believers, they did it in the name of Islam.
It’s fair to ask if Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi is even safe in the possession of a Saudi ruler, particularly this one.
Crown Prince Salman, 32, known as MBS, is suspected of being behind November’s mad caper that risked destabilizing Lebanon — summoning Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh, and he was put under house arrest and forced to resign.
The plot against Hariri, who returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation, appears to have collapsed, but it revealed a brazen young leader, cruising to engage Lebanon in his sectarian obsession with Iran that would certainly mean massive murder and destruction.
To his credit, in October, the crown prince criticized the lock on religion of fanatical clerics in Saudi Arabia.
But just a few weeks later (and about a week before the Christie’s sale), Prince Salman detained more than 200 Saudi princes, ministers, officials and business people in a luxury hotel, accusing them of crimes ranging from money laundering to fraud. There is no independent judicial system in Saudi Arabia, only Islamic law; there, the ruler is the judge.
Considering detainees were compelled to pay out huge sums of money — one prince paid more than $1 billion to escape embezzlement charges — the scenario looked a lot like extortion. Certainly, Salman obtained the cash needed to buy a Leonardo.
Some pundits are spinning the detention scheme as a progressive anti-corruption campaign (while letting MBS demonize Iran’s leader as a “new Hitler”), but Crown Prince Salman’s gambit is also seen as evidence of dangerous recklessness.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Saudi Arabia Dec. 8 to be more “measured and a bit more thoughtful” with regard to political machinations in Lebanon and a brutal bombardment of Yemen.
Saudi’s war against Yemen now threatens to morph into a huge humanitarian calamity, with millions of citizens starving, 900,000 suffering cholera and 7 million people on the brink of starvation.
Tragically, the U.S. government has provided crucial support via refueling stations for Saudi bombers.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
While orchestrating chaos, it is remarkable MBS had time to engineer the purchase of Salvator Mundi.
In fact, his friend Prince Behar only submitted the requisite $100 million to participate in bidding just the day before the auction.
Considering the painting is contraband in the kingdom, it is no surprise a different front popped up to claim it would have the treasure: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2012.
The new museum tweeted Dec. 8 that it would display the Leonardo, “acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism-Abu Dhabi for the museum.”
Even the museum is not exactly what it seems to be. Ten years ago, the French National Assembly approved the transfer of the name, and loan of artwork, for half a billion dollars, but the deal will turn into a pumpkin in 10 to 30 years. A petition signed by 4,650 art-world professionals complained that museums should not create franchises.
Why Abu Dhabi for the Leonardo? Its crown prince is a close ally of the Saudi crown prince.
We can hope Jesus Christ as Savior of the World is well protected and continues to move, change and transfix new viewers.
Still, it is worrisome to see a Catholic treasure transferred to war-bent rulers in Christophobic territory.
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine,
the Washington Examiner.