Platonic receptacles, Leonardo and the Salvator Mundi

July 18, 2011

Readers have requested a summary of the iconographic and provenance details of the newly attributed Leonardo piece depicting Christ as Salvator Mundi. This post summarises a possible interpretation of the iconography, and lists the presently available information on provenance. A future publication by Yale University Press, The Lost Christ of Leonardo da Vinci promises the fullest possible detail, due in 2012.

Christ as Salvator Mundi
Date to be confirmed
Oil on walnut panel
65.6 x 45.4 cm
Private Collection
Published in 2011 as an autograph work by Leonardo

Stylistic Analysis

From an iconographic perspective, a Salvator Mundi depiction is complete when it includes the symbol of blessing and a representation of an orb, representing dominion over heaven and earth. A symbol of Christ offering blessing without an indication of a globe or orb is more accurately described as pax vobiscum, the act of blessing meaning "peace be unto you".

The use of hand gestures giving blessing is an ancient motif in art. This particular gesture of the fingers is known as the mano pantea, which predates Christianity and can be seen in Pagan motifs to ward off evil eye, and Ancient Egyptian artifacts invoking parental protection.

A forward facing depiction of Christ was common in Early Christian art, seen in a range of settings - from Roman catacomb paintings to Coptic frescoes in Egypt. In Italy, early Christian mosaics at the Basilica di Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna include a famous depiction of Christ delivering blessing with the same hand gesture.

Ravenna Mosaic depicting pax vobiscum

Renaissance artists before Leonardo had completed variations of a forward facing Christ, or God the Father giving blessing. One of the most striking is Jan van Eyck's depiction of God the Father in the Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432.  Previous depictions in various media had not reached this dramatic level of realism, with van Eyck working in both tempera and oils. Also in oils are Hans Memling's contemplative versions of Christ Giving Blessing. With an absence of landscape, the thoughtful resonance of Leonardo's image aligns with this Northern antecedent. Dürer's famous self portrait of 1500 is also closely related to the Memling and Eyckian predecessors.

Traditional Christian iconography of the orb
An orb as a symbolic representation of power also has ancient roots, commonly seen in Ancient Egyptian and Pagan motifs representing the sun. Like the mano pantea, it was adopted by the early Christian Church  to represent the dominion of the Christian deity over heaven and the earth. Early depictions often show the orb with the Greek letters representing Christ, or capped with a crucifix. This form, known as the globus cruciger became the most common, and was adopted by earthly rulers in Christian realms as a symbol of power, along with a sceptre. It should be mentioned that the globus cruciger became more prevalent in the Catholic tradition, whereas an image of Christ holding a book, known as Pantokrator, was more common in Byzantine depictions.

A Platonic interpretation?
Leonardo's orb is neither a map of the earth, nor emblazoned with a crucifix. Observers have linked the appearance of this feature in Salvator Mundi as a demonstration of Leonardo's fascination with optics, and the depiction of translucent elements in paint. This is part of the answer. An awareness of Leonardo's familiarity with Plato's Timaeus is perhaps the key to understanding its full meaning.

Plato's Timaeus is an astounding work. Presented as a dialogue, it operates at many levels and is a remarkable example of an early attempt at a grand unifying theory linking creation to physical principles and theological concepts. In parts it reads as a philosophical treatise, in others it discusses mathematics and geometry, even anatomy and optics. Although Latin monastic sections of Timaeus existed in the Middle Ages, Platonism became an obsession for Renaissance minds, particularly following the translation of a greater amount of the Platonic corpus into Latin.

Leonardo's familiarity with Plato's writings is well established, demonstrated in numerous instances in his own work on proportion, optics and anatomy. Leonardo also contributed drawings of the shapes that Plato theorised comprised matter, known as the Platonic Solids. These appeared in a text by Fra Luca Pacioli,  De Divina Proportione, to which Leonardo contributed drawings of combinations of the Platonic solids. This work was dedicated to Ludovico Sforza in February 1498.

Drawings from De Divina Proportione

In Timaeus, Plato's dialogue proposes that the structure of the entire universe is contained within a sphere, which is devoid of features, perfectly invisible and formless as befitting a concept of divine creation:

Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies. And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance.
Wherefore, the mother and receptacle of all created and visible and in any way sensible things, is not to be termed earth, or air, or fire, or water, or any of their compounds or any of the elements from which these are derived, but is an invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible. In saying this we shall not be far wrong ; as far, however, as we can attain to a knowledge of her from the previous considerations, we may truly say that fire is that part of her nature which from time to time is inflamed, and water that which is moistened, and that the mother substance becomes earth and air, in so far as she receives the impressions of them. 

Plato describes this receptacle as the mother of all creation, pairing it with the concept of a Demiurge as the father of all creation. These concepts, whilst related long before Christianity, held a deep fascination to monastic scholars, explaining why Timaeus remained the key fragmentary Platonic text outside Byzantium in the Middle Ages. Its role in the Neo-Platonic revival, and its association with Leonardo is perhaps best embodied by Raphael's depiction of a man resembling Leonardo as Plato, holding a copy of Timaeus in School of Athens.

That Plato was widely respected by artists can be traced back to Leon-Battista Alberti's treatise on painting, De Pictura. In it he describes men of distinction in learning as painters themselves:
..the philosophers Socrates, Plato, Metrodorus and Pyrrho achieved distinction in painting...The excellent custom was especially observed among the Greeks that free-born and liberally educated young people were also taught the art of painting together with letters, geometry and music...the art of painting is indeed worthy of free minds and noble intellects.

Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology
It has also been noted that the crystalline nature of the sphere held by Christ is in accordance with the celestial spheres expressed in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic accounts of the universe. These descriptions arranged the heavens in concentric circles around the earth as its central point. Whilst a concentric arrangement or indication of a central earthly mass is not evident in Leonardo's depiction,  Professor Martin Kemp submits it as a likely source for the unique crystalline design of the globe in Salvator Mundi. link

It should be noted here that the most influential work on the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic 'sphere of the world' in Leonardo's time was the Tractatus de Sphaera (Treatise on the Globe) by thirteenth century astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco. This book was published throughout Europe, and is noted as one of the first printed books on cosmology. In Italy, versions were published  by Andreas Belfortis in Ferrara in 1472 as Sphaera Mundi (Globe of the World) and in Venice by Florentius de Argentina as Tractatvm Spera in the same year. Commentaries, translations and reprints appeared regularly in subsequent years, in Italy and across Europe. (see Thorndike)

Outlined in Sacrobosco's work is a summary of Aristotle's cosmology - particularly relevant are the descriptions of the spherical arrangement of the universe, consisting of an elementary region and the heavens:
The machine of the universe is divided into two, the ethereal and the elementary region. The elementary region, existing subject to continual alteration, is divided into four For there is earth, placed, as it were, as the center in the middle of all, about which is water, about water air, about air fire, which is pure and not turbid there and reaches to the sphere of the moon, as Aristotle says in his book of Meteorology....Around the elementary region revolves with continuous circular motion the ethereal, which is lucid and immune from all variation in its immutable essence. And it is called "Fifth Essence" by the philosophers. Of which there are nine spheres, as we have just said: namely, of the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars, and the last heaven. Each of these spheres incloses its inferior spherically.
Divisio Sphaerae Mundi from a sixteenth century Italian edition of Sacrobosco

On Leonardo and Platonic doctrine*
It should be clarified that the use of a clear sphere, whilst likely inspired by Platonic and Artistoelian/Ptolemaic concepts in a visual sense, should not in any way be interpreted as a proclamation by Leonardo of his belief in ancient doctrine. It is beyond the scope of this article to comment on the spiritual impression Leonardo's extant writings leave us with. Instead, the device of the clear globe, point to Leonardo's adaptation of ancient sources to illustrate a Christian conception of the universe. This is congruent with other works in the Renaissance which take inspiration from classical sources - for example - Saint Sebastian depicted in a manner reminiscent of Apollo, or Christ and God the father depicted "in the manner of Jove" - as seen in famous works by Raphael (Vision of Ezekiel) and Michelangelo (Sistine Frescoes).

Rock crystal and optical distortion
It has been tentatively suggested that the sphere is a representation of rock crystal, a structure, often of quartz, fashioned into spherical globes for decorative and ritualistic purposes. Finding a rock crystal the size of the one depicted in Salvator Mundi is difficult - but the nature of the occlusions depicted by the artist indicate a natural crystalline structure instead of a man made glass sphere.  Observers have noted that a level of magnification of the garment behind the sphere is expected, but is not rendered in the painting. This point, being related to modes of depiction of optical effects in Renaisance art will be explored in greater detail in a future update.

Other commentators have expressed doubts towards the attribution based on an assertion that Hollar's etching depicts this distortion. Closer examination of the etched lines travelling behind the sphere suggest this is unlikely. Criticism of the attribution based on evidence from the actual panel would be more welcome in this instance.

Continuation of undistorted fold lines suggested in Hollar etching highlighted in yellow, including line A - depicting a continuous line above, behind and below the sphere

Panel and pigment characteristics
Reported as walnut panel. Whether this was confirmed via microscopy, visual or other analysis is presently not known. The extent of technical data on panel and pigment characteristics is summarised as demonstrating "consistency of the pigments, media, and technique discovered in the Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo."

Preparatory studies and design intricacy 
There are extant drapery studies from the Royal Collection at Windsor which in parts resemble, but do not exactly match the depiction seen in the present piece. These studies are dated between 1504-8.

click for more information

The intricacy of work demonstrated on the tunic of Christ are also cited as proof of Leonardo's authorship. Vasari famously notes:
He even went so far as to waste his time in drawing knots of cords, made according to an order, that from one end all the rest might follow till the other, so as to fill a round; and one of these is to be seen in stamp, most difficult and beautiful, and in the middle of it are these words, "Leonardus Vinci Accademia".

Reports on the conservation history of the work highlights the presence of pentimenti, confirmed by infrared photography. Change of position of the thumb on right hand was became visible to the naked eye during the restoration process. Presence of pentimenti are widely regarded as signs of an original composition. How revealed underdrawing compares to other Leonardo works is likely to be presented in the upcoming Yale University Press publication.

Mid-treatment detail of hand with pentimento still visible

There is debate as to when this work was conceived, started and finished. Some attest  that it was created during Leonardo's tenures in the Court of Milan, first under the Sforza, and later under the French. Others cite it being created in Florence shortly after 1500. Another record, not commonly mentioned is the following correspondence by Isabella d'Este to Leonardo dated 14 May 1505:
We beg you... to do a youthful Christ executed with that sweetness and soft ethereal charm which is the peculiar excellence of your art.
However, this quote is unlikely to refer to this piece as Isabella d'Este's request is interpreted as being for an adolescent Christ. 

Press materials distributed by present owners describe the Royal provenance of this piece. These materials presently do not mention any identifying markers that establish the connection of this work to this early provenance. From the perspective of a paper trail, this present work's history seems to start at 1900. Markers such as an inventory number or Royal seal on the present work would illustrate this. Hopefully these details will be supplied in the upcoming Yale Press Publication.

1649 Noted in an inventory of the Royal Collection. Date of this inventory being before or after Charles I execution in this year is presently not established. 

1650 Wenceslaus Hollar makes an etching of the piece during his time in England, by order of Charles I widow, Henrietta Maria. The etching identifies the work it is based on as being by Leonardo.
?1650-1660 Painting was sold during the Interregnum years (between the reign of Charles I and II), but was returned to Royal Collection upon the accession of Charles II in 1660. It then passed into the possession of the Duke of Buckingham

1660-1783 Part of the collection of the Duke of Buckingham, Buckingham House (now Palace) Auctioned by family of the Duke of Buckingham after Buckingham House was sold to the King in 1783

1783-1900 The painting's location between this period is presently not documented in available sources

1900 Purchased by Frederick Cook (black and white photograph taken in 1912)

1958 Sold by Cook's descendants as a work by Leonardo pupil Giovan Antonio Boltraffio

1958-?2005 Part of a (presently unnamed) private collection in US

2005 Purchased by US consortium. Identification initiated by US art historian Robert Simon

Attribution history
1900-2011 Attributed to Giovan Antonio Boltraffio

2011 Consensus decision, facilitated by NGL director Nicholas Penny confirmed Leonardo attribution. Officially announced in a press release document issued from current owners' publicity representative link

Influences on other artists?
Leonardo's depiction, with its translucent globe seems to have resonated with other artists. Particularly worth considering is Albrecht Dürer's unfinished version of Salvator Mundi. The date of this piece is still under speculation, with some believing it was commenced before his second visit to Italy. Dürer's work also highlights an attempt to display a glass orb, but still adorned with a crucifix according to the globus cruciger motif.

click for more information

The most curious examples of an influence can perhaps be demonstrated by these works presently attributed to Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio. A circa 1480 version of Salvator Mundi and Four Evangelists shows a bronze orb with crucifix intact. In a work dated near 1520 (safely after Leonardo's version) he presents a version that more closely hearkens to Leonardo's image - even going as far as representing a central entity in the globe - namely, the body of heaven - taking us directly back to Plato and Timaeus:

The soul, interfused everywhere from the centre to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine beginning of never ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all time. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible, and partakes of reason and harmony, and being made by the best of intellectual and everlasting natures, is the best of things created.

Some argument may also be made here that Carpaccio's depiction is more closely related to the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic arrangement of the heavens, formed as concentric circles with the earth at the centre.

A full review of Yale University Press' The Lost Christ of Leonardo da Vinci will be presented here after its release in 2012, hopefully filling in some of the gaps in the description above.

October 30th 2011: 
BBC1 aired Da Vinci: The Lost Treasure, hosted by Fiona Bruce, whom readers may recognise from Fake or Fortune. It included a general biography of Leonardo and a summary of his most well-known works. Excerpted below are the fascinating segments focusing on Salvator Mundi, featuring art dealer Robert Simon and restorer Dianne Modestini, whom 3PP would like to congratulate for their diligence in bringing this work to something of its former glory. Kudos.

Many thanks to Robert Simon, whose site provides the following image: link  It represents the final state of the painting, with areas of restoration completed, and pentimenti closed, most notably in the right hand.

November 17th 2011: 
In a wonderful interview posted by Andrew M. Goldstein at Artinfo, Professor Kemp explains some of the historical background to Leonardo's use of a crystalline structure to depict the universe, including a reference to Ptolemaic cosmology and the double refraction created by rock crystal. link 

Alberti, Leon Battista. De Pictura. (Trans. Grayson). Phaidon. London. 1964. p.63-4

Ames-Lewis, F. The Intellectual Life of The Early Renaissance Artist. Abbeville Press. p.18, 275

Elworthy, F.T. The Evil Eye The Classic Account of An Ancient Superstition. Courier Dover Publications. 2004 p.293. link

Goldstein, AM. The Male Mona Lisa? Art Historian Martin Kemp on Leonardo's Mysterious Salvator Mundi. Artinfo. November 17th 2011. Accessed November 18th 2011 link

Hankins, J. 1999. The Study of the Timaeus in Early Renaissance Italy. Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

History of The British Monarchy (Official Website). Entries for Charles II and Interregnum. Accessed July 17 2011 link 

Kemp, M. Leonardo da Vinci: the marvellous works of nature and man. Oxford University Press. 2006. pp.208-9

Thorndike, L. The Sphere of Sacrobosco and Its Commentators. University of Chicago Press. 1949 (online translation of Tractatvs de Sphaera extracted from Thorndike here)

Timaeus by Plato. (Jowett, B. Trans.) The Internet Classics Archive at MIT Accessed July 17 2011 link

Vasari, G.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects.  DeVere, G.C (Trans.) Ekserdijan, D.(ed.). Knopf. 1996. pp.627-640 ; 710-748

Many thanks to Professor Martin Kemp for the clarification (via correspondence) of Leonardo's response to Platonic doctrine. The section On Leonardo and Platonic doctrine has since been added, clarifying my suggestion of the use of the sphere as an instance of iconographic adaptation, rather than a proclamation of Platonic doctrine. More information on this aspect is expected in the upcoming Yale Press publication.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Truly fascinating! Kudos for all your hard work.

M said...

Great post! Wow, you've done a lot of hard work! I'm curious to how Yale publication can supplement the work you have done here.

It might be worth mentioning that Robert Smith is not only a US art historian, but also a fine art dealer/consultant/appraiser. You can see his website HERE. I wonder why he initiated the identification project in 2005 - was he hired by a client?

H Niyazi said...

Many thanks for the comments!

@M - The press releases seem to indicate Simon was the first to believe there was something to more to the picture that could be revealed by a restoration/cleanup. Nicholas Penny was still at the NGA when he first got wind of it.

I'm particularly looking forward to the Yale UP book. I really want to see the provenance evidence for that pre 1900 period, and see if anyone has any evidence as to when it was commissioned or completed.

From his other works, Kemp states that Leonardo was not in frame of mind predisposed to painting between 1501-02 in particular - there is a famous correspondence by an agent of Isabella d'Este indicating Leonardo was consumed with his studies of geometry at the time.

The Platonic reading of the orb seems to to be self evident to me, though if it is mentioned in the book, I will claim bragging rights for 3PP saying it first! :)


Stephen Conrad said...

Surely it would have been possible to check the first Royal Collection references for your blog in the two Walpole Society volumes edited by the late Sir Oliver Millar on Van Der Doort's inventories of the Royal Collection (1958-60) and the Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods (1972)? Did Kind George III acquire the picture with the sale of Buckingham House? The inventory of Buckingham House under King George III has not been published, to my knowledge, but it should be remembered that since George III gave away Giambologna's sculpture Samson Slaying the Philistine to Thomas Worsley of Hovingham, he could have given away such picture as this to a favourite...

H Niyazi said...

Hello Stephen, welcome to 3PP, and thank you for your contribution.

Those very Walpole Society volumes naturally kept cropping up during inquiries, but I did not have them on hand to be able to go through them in any detail.

I am hoping the finite details of the work's provenance is provided in the Yale Press volume. I have no wish to retrace the steps of the researchers of that book - they get paid for it, I don't!

Millar's works are definitely a wondrous resource for anyone interested in European art that ended up in British collections.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

This work is simply mind blowing! Staggering!!! If Kemp and Pedretti have given it their stamp of approval, then I say it's more than likely the real deal. I have had the opportunity to see some of Leonardo's work up quite close and everything about this painting seems to ring true. Either it is what they claim it to be or one of the greatest forgeries ever created. The ephemeral presence of subject comes forward as you attempt to meet it's intoxicating gaze. The expression is indicting, while simultaneously illicit and even sultry. Only leonardo could have pulled this off! I absolutely cannot wait to see this when it comes to London!

Anonymous said...

This as a great piece of art and a thoroughful collection of information and references.
As a professor working in the field of optics I have a simple question: The glas orb seems
to be a rock crystal bowl, als also stated in the video. Such a glas bowl would have extremely
strong refractive effects, similar to a large magnifying glas. Hence the wrinkles of the garment would be strongly distorted, definitely they would not appear as going straight behind the bowl.
Why should Leonardo, who was well familiar with optics, neglect such an effect?
Is any similar seen in other paintings from him? I found other paintings with glas orbs which look like being made from a glas blower consisting only of a thin peel of glas. THese would leed to a more undistorted view through it. However, the present one seems to be solid with some inclusions.
Thomas D

H Niyazi said...

Hello Thomas. Welcome to 3PP and many thanks for your contribution.

I hope elements of this - and answers to your queries - will be clarified in the upcoming Yale Press publication. The closest to it we have at the moment is this quote from Professor Martin Kemp which was published in the Sunday Times report on Salvator Mundi in the UK on 9 October 2011:

"The heel of the hand is shown twice. The restorer thought this must be a pentimento, but in fact Leonardo has picked up the fact that rock crystal has a double refraction."

I would actually like to see a photograph of a similarly attired subject holding a rock crystal - so we can demonstrated exactly how it *should* look compared to how it is depicted!

Kind Regards

Glennis said...

I am practically beside myself with anticipation of the Leonardo exhibition, which I'm attending next Thursday. The Platonic insight is fascinating. In the desciption of the mother and receptacle of all created symbolised by the orb, and in the essence of creation manifestied in spherical Plantonic solids, I can't help but feel Plato and Leonardo were intuitively grasping the essence of atomic matter.
I'm so grateful to have this additional insight in advance of my viewing.

H Niyazi said...

Cheers for the comment Glennis. It definitely will be a rare experience, especially to see the two 'Virgin of the Rocks' together in one place for the first time. The catalogue looks amazing too - I'm eagerly awaiting my review copy, not to mention the Salvator Mundi book!

Kind Regards

H Niyazi said...

Edit notes:
30 October 2011
*Added clip from BBC documentary
*Added references to involvement of Robert Simon and Dianne Modestini (also in clip)

18 November 2011
*Added Aristotelian/Ptolemaic info
*Added Sacrobosco info including image of Spera Mundi, Thorndike reference
*Added link to Prof. Kemp's interview at Artinfo
*Added section on rock crystals and optical distortion
*Added Hollar etching comparison


tresloukadu said...

Man i liked your post. I always tried to understand better the salvator mundi and its meaning thanks for the explanation.

Sandra said...

Can I just offer you my gratitude for the things I have learnt from you??? Hazan! Through here and through Twitter you are an amazing and continuous source of enlightenment for someone like me! For that: a zillion "GRACIAS!!!" If you are ever in Florence, I owe you a glass of Prosecco! :-)) Cheers!!

Hasan Niyazi said...

Cheers Sandra :) Do say hello next time on twitter!

Many kind regards

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