The Case of a ‘Celebrity Painting’ — Decoding the Restoration of ‘Salvator Mundi’

Painting Title: Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, c.1500s. Image source — link

In 2017, a painting made headlines for being the most expensive in the world, having sold for USD 450.3 million at a high — profile auction(1). In 2018, the painting made headlines again, when it disappeared from the public sphere(2).

The painting in question is the artwork shown above, a 26 — inch high oil painting on walnut wood(3) that disappeared without a trace. Its exact whereabouts is still under speculation. All we know is that it was suddenly removed from the public sphere. The painting that has disappeared is titled ‘Salvator Mundi’, Latin for Saviour of the World(4). It is attributed to none other than Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master(5).

As an art conservation professional, I can say that most people with artist training can easily become adept at skills related to art conservation, however, that is not the norm the other way around. Though the skills required to execute overlap to an extent, art creation and art conservation are opposites in terms of intent — one seeks to create from a scratch while one seeks to preserve what has already been created. The first is one’s own expression while the second seeks to protect the legacy of another. Both are connected yet serve their own purpose.

So are the allegations leveled against Modestini true? The basic tenet that an art conservator follows is that of minimum and reversible intervention. As an art conservation professional who has worked in the field of easel painting conservation earlier, and looking at images available on the internet at hand, I can safely say that the restoration of this painting has not gone overboard. I am clarifying this point here for the general public, and it not a testament to the judgement and skills of such a senior conservator as Modestini, who has dedicated her life to this field. It is not my place to do so. This is just to inform the general public of my opinion regarding the matter at hand, that is, to present a conservation perspective to the general audience in order to aid understanding of the misunderstood aspects around its restoration process.

Painting during restoration. Image source — link

In my opinion, the decision to sufficiently mask the pentimento would have been taken as a mark of respect to the artist’s original intention and also present it in the way the artist would have wanted it to be seen i.e. with one thumb and not two. Retaining the thumb for posterity would be unnatural to the way the figure was originally intended to be viewed. Moreover, the iconographical and anatomical depiction of Christ would be inaccurate with two thumbs, considering the present generally understood aspects that identify Christ as Christ and not someone else.

Documentation and diagnostic analysis of the condition of the painting would have been carried out by the conservator and/or their team throughout the process of intervention. The pentimento, older retouching, new retouching, and varnish layer/s are visible through multispectral imaging (UV and IR imaging) post conservation. So one can actually view where the new retouching has been done post conservation! Detailed records would be available with the conservator, a copy typically with the client as well.

The celebrities of today may or may not create controversies around themselves to remain in the spotlight. Salvator Mundi has remained in the spotlight essentially because of the life breathed into it by it’s creator, by the artist. And that is the power of the visual language and style developed by the artist himself. Indeed a case of a ‘Celebrity Painting’ which continues to remain mired in controversies, much like the celebrities of today; yet unlike them a silent spectator to the drama that unfolds around it.

Footnotes —

A museology and conservation professional from Mumbai who likes to delve into the world of art, history and culture