Jesus Christ, Superstar. That pretty well sums up the attitude of the art world just now. Last week in New York, a portrait that was probably (depending on whom you ask) painted by Leonardo da Vinci about 520 years ago went under the gavel at Christie’s. When the last bid came in and the auctioneer said “Sold,” no one in the room could quite believe what they had witnessed. With the attached fees, an anonymous buyer had spent $450 million — almost half a billion dollars — on a painting called “Salvator Mundi,” Savior of the World. It is far and away the most expensive painting ever sold.
The story goes that the portrait of Christ in a Renaissance tunic holding a mesmerizing crystalline sphere, which has been compared favorably by experts to the Mona Lisa, was commissioned by King Louis XII of France a scant eight years after Christopher Columbus set sail in search of a new route to China and so changed the way everyone thought of the world itself.
One hundred and thirty years later it had made its way across the English Channel and into the private collection of King Charles I, who gazed approvingly upon it until his monarchical overreach brought on a civil war with Parliament and his ultimate execution at the hands of a Puritan zealot named Oliver Cromwell. The painting nevertheless remained in the royal collection until 1763.
But that year, even as the British were driving the French from Canada and a 31-year-old George Washington reveled in being a subject of a triumphant Empire on which the sun was just beginning its perpetual shine, the painting silently disappeared from the records. Decades passed, then a century, then more. Finally it reappeared when a British nobleman bought it in 1900. By then its long history had passed into obscurity, its pedigree reduced to vague rumors, and it was damaged and darkened by repeated attempts at restoration. In 1958, it changed hands for a mere 45 pounds.
But now, something is clearly different.
There are only 15 other paintings known to have come from the hand of Leonardo and all of them are already in museums. In 2011, Martin Kemp, an expert on the Renaissance who teaches at Oxford University, said that this one too has “that kind of presence that Leonardo’s have.” But some in the art world think that Christie’s went way overboard in hyping a work whose provenance is murky and whose quality prevents it from being a great piece of art. Todd Levin, a New York art advisor, called the sale “a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.” The New York Times shared the skepticism felt by many when it said the whole affair illustrated “the degree to which salesmanship has come to drive and dominate the conversation about art and its value.”
What can we learn from this? Even while it might make you condemn the art market as being hopelessly awash in far more money than sense, it also reminds us of how great art can, literally, transcend time. This arrangement of oil paint on a walnut panel has captivated kings and commoners for over half a millennium. Its serene gaze has drawn in countless people even as it saw the turbulent rise and fall of empires, world-shattering wars, and discoveries beyond even the dreams of the inspired genius who painted it. To see it is to experience nothing less than the coexistence of humanity and history, and understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that art is the signature of man.