“The Savior of the World” (Salvator Mundi) by Leonardo da Vinci. 5 curious details of the painting

Leonardo Salvator Mundi
Leonardo da Vinci. The Savior of the World (Salvator Mundi). Circa 1500, Louvre in Abu Dhabi

In late 2017, the art society was shocked twice. A work by none other than Leonardo da Vinci* was offered for sale. And this may happen only once in 1000 years.

Moreover, it was sold for almost half a billion dollars! This is likely to never happen again.

But for many people this news outshined the picture itself. At the same time, it is full of extremely curious details.

Some of them prove that Leonardo was the one who really painted “The Savior of the world” (Salvator Mundi).

The others, on the contrary, throw into question that this Renaissance era genius could create it.

1. Sfumato

It is commonly known that sfumato was invented by Leonardo. Due to this technique, his paintings’ characters evolved from painted dolls to almost flesh-and-blood people.

He managed to achieve this by realizing that the real world contains no lines. Therefore, they shouldn’t be present on a painting either.

Leonardo started depicting shaded contours of faces and hands that looked like seamless transitions from light to shadow.

He used this very technique to create his famous “Mona Lisa”.

Sfumato is used in “The Savior” too. Moreover, it is hypertrophied here. We see the Jesus’ face as though in a fog.

Nevertheless, “The Savior” is called a male version of “Mona Lisa”. Partly, it is due to the similar features. Here we can agree. The eyes, the nose, and the upper lip look similar.

And because of sfumato as well. However, if we bring them into line, it will become obvious that we see the Savior’s face as if through a thick fog.

Leonardo’s paintings details
Details of Leonardo’s paintings: Salvator Mundi (left) and Mona Lisa (right)

So, it’s and ambivalent detail. It seems to prove the Leonardo’s authorship.

On the other hand, it’s too obtrusive. As if someone imitated the master, but overdid it.

There is something else that unites “Mona Lisa” and “The Savior”.

Leonardo intended to impart androgynous features to his characters. His male characters have female features.

Remember an angel in his painting “Madonna of the Rocks”. The Savior’s face features are quite soft as well.

Leonardo da Vinci Madonna of the rocks
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna of the rocks (a fragment). 1483-1486, Louvre, Paris

2. A Sphere as a symbol of our world

Besides the Jesus’ face, the brightest detail in the painting is a glass sphere.

Someone may think that the ball in the Savior’s hands looks unusual.

Indeed, before Columbus discovered America in 1492, people believed that the Earth was flat. Could this new knowledge spread throughout Europe so quickly?

After all, if we look at other “Saviors” of that period, we will clearly see that the image is repeated by the German and the Dutch artists as well.

The Savior of the World (Durer and der Beke)
To the left: Dürer. The Savior of the World (unfinished). 1505, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
To the right: Joos van der Beke. The Savior of the World. 1516-1518, Louvre, Paris

The case is that even the ancient Greeks knew about sphericity of the Earth. Educated Europeans both in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance era were well aware of this fact as well.

We falsely assume that people realized their mistake only after the Columbus’ voyage. The theory of the flat Earth always existed in parallel with the theory of its sphericity.

Even nowadays, there are people who will convince you that the Earth is a quadrangle covered by a dome.

The hand holding the sphere features another remarkable detail.

On closer inspection, we can notice pentimento. It means that the artist’s alterations are visible with the naked eye.

Please note that initially the palm was smaller, but the master made it wider.

Leonardo Detail of “The Savior of the World” (the glass sphere)
Leonardo da Vinci. Detail of “The Savior of the World” (the glass sphere). Circa 1500, Louvre in Abu Dhabi

Experts believe that pentimento always prove authorship.

However, every medal has its reverse. A student might have painted the hand and Leonardo just corrected it.

3. Composition of “The Savior”

It is that very detail that that gives evidence against authenticity of the painting.

The case is that you won’t find a single portrait by Leonardo, where he depicted his character completely full face.

His models are always half-turned to us. It doesn’t matter whether you look an early work or the latest one.

Leonardo did it intentionally. By using a more complicated pose, he tried to breathe life into his characters to impart them at least a bit of dynamics.

Leonardo’s artworks portrait of Ginevra Benci and St. John the Baptist
To the left: Portrait of Ginevra Benci. 1476, The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
To the right: St. John the Baptist. 1513-1516, Louvre, Paris

4. Leonardo’s artisanship

Being an anatomist, Leonardo was extremely good at painting hands. The right hand is depicted with really great skill.

Clothes are also painted in Leonardo’s style. The shirt folds and sleeves are shown very naturally.

Moreover, these details coincide with the master’s initial sketches that are exhibited in Windsor Castle.

Leonardo sketches
Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. Circa 1500, the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London

All you need to do is to compare Leonardo’s “Savior” with the work by his student.

The contrast immediately reveals the true artisanship.

Leonardo and his pupil’s paintings
To the left: Leonardo da Vinci. Salvator Mundi. Circa 1500. Louvre, Abu-Dhabi.
To the right: unknown author (Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop). 1505, Louvre, Paris

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5. Leonardo’s colours

“Madonna of the Rocks” is exhibited in the National Gallery in London. This very museum was the first one to recognize authenticity of “The Savior of the World”. The case is that the gallery employees had a strong argument.

By analysing the pigments of “The Savior’s” paint they proved that it is absolutely identical to the paint of “Madonna of the Rocks”.

Fragments of Leonardo’s paintings
To the left: a fragment of the painting “Salvator Mundi”. 1500.
To the right: a fragment of the painting “Madonna of the Rocks”. 1499-1508, The National Gallery, London.

Indeed, despite the damaged paint layer, the colours are selected with masterly skill.

However, this fact can easily prove another point of view – the painting was created by a Leonardo’s student, who used the same paint as the master, which is quite logically.


We can only guess, whether Leonardo painted every inch of “The Savior” himself or just corrected the work of his student.

However, over 500 years the painting was badly damaged. Moreover, its hapless owners added a beard and moustache to the Jesus’ image. Apparently, they weren’t satisfied with the androgynous look of “The Savior”.

As a result, in the middle of the 20th century it was sold at an auction for as little as $45! So poorly it looked.

But in the 2000s, after 6 years of meticulous work the painting was restored. Experts have done everything possible to make it look like work of Leonardo again.

Alas, in this case it is more the restorer’s work, but not the one by the Renaissance era master.

* At the end of March 2019, the media reported that the painting disappeared from the museum. It is no longer exhibited to the public.

Leading art experts express deepest regret, since it’s a great misfortune for all art lovers to be deprived of such a masterpiece.


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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