The Male "Mona Lisa"?: Art Historian Martin Kemp on Leonardo da Vinci's Mysterious "Salvator Mundi"

The Male "Mona Lisa"?: Art Historian Martin Kemp on Leonardo da Vinci's Mysterious "Salvator Mundi"

With this month’s opening of “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at the National Gallery in London there has been an enormous surge of interest in this archetypal Renaissance artist, in part because the exhibition is the most comprehensive show of his art to date and in part because it contains something of a secular miracle — the “Salvator Mundi,” an uncanny late painting of Jesus that Leonardo experts only rediscovered this year.

The Oxford scholar Martin Kemp, a leading Renaissance expert who wrote the recently reissued “Leonardo” biography and the soon-to-be published book “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,” bears the distinction of having helped authenticate both the “Salvator Mundi” and another recently discovered work, the so-called “Bella Principessa,” which remains contested.

To follow our conversation about the “Bella Principessa,” ARTINFO spoke to Kemp about the mysterious qualities of the “Salvator Mundi,” and how Leonardo remains relevant to contemporary artists working today.


Remarkably, the last year or so has seen the rediscovery of two important Leonardo portraits, the "Bella Principessa" and the “Salvator Mundi.” When was the last time a lost Leonardo came to light?

The last Leonardo painting to come up was the “Benois Madonna” in the Hermitage, and that was in the early 20th century. So it's over 100 years since a painting came up that will insinuate itself into Leonardo's work with general acceptance, and I'm confident that that will happen with the "Salvator Mundi." It is already beginning to happen. The owner there acted very shrewdly. He or she — I don't know who the owner is — secured the opinions of Leonardo scholars in a very systematic and quiet way, and we sat on it for two years. The idea of the owner or owners working very systematically, very quietly, was in marked contrast to what happened to the "Bella Principessa," which got a lot of premature publicity before the work was really done.

How did you first come to see the "Salvator Mundi"?

The director of the National Gallery in London, Nicholas Penny, emailed me and said, “Do you want to come in on such-and-such a date? We've got something I think you would want to look at," which is rather different from getting a jpeg in your email. And I felt, "Well, it's obviously something connected to Leonardo." And they were already thinking about a Leonardo exhibition, I think, at that point. So I went into the conservation studio, and there were already some Leonardo scholars there, and it was sitting on an easel over on the left-hand side. And I looked at it and thought, "Fantastic."

You knew immediately?

Yeah. It was quite clear. It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have. The "Mona Lisa" has a presence. So after that initial reaction, which is kind of almost inside your body, as it were, you look at it and you think, well, the handling of the better-preserved parts, like the hair and so on, is just incredibly good. It's got that kind of uncanny vortex, as if the hair is a living, moving substance, or like water, which is what Leonardo said hair was like. So it almost ceases to become hair, and it becomes a source of energy in its own right. It's a very characteristic way of doing hair, which Leonardo has. Then the blessing hand has got a lot of very understated anatomical structure in it. All the versions of the "Salvator Mundi" — and we've got drawings of the drapery and lots of copies — all of them have rather tubular fingers. What Leonardo had done, and the copyists and imitators didn't pick up, was to get just how the knuckle sort of sits underneath the skin. And the blessing hands of the ones in the copies are all rather smooth and routine, but this is somebody who actually knew what — and, you know, this is a young person, this is not an elderly person — knew how the flesh lies over the knuckles. So, that's pretty good.

What was striking for me was the orb, and I've subsequently researched it quite heavily. The "Salvator Mundi" obviously holds the mundus, the world which he's saving, and it was absolutely unlike anything I've seen before. The orbs in other Salvator Mundis, often they're of a kind of brass or solid. Sometimes they're terrestrial globes, sometimes they're translucent glass, and one or two even have little landscapes in them. What this one had was an amazing series of glistening little apertures — they're like bubbles, but they're not round — painted very delicately, with just a touch of impasto, a touch of dark, and these little sort of glistening things, particularly around the part where you get the back reflections. And that said to me: rock crystal. Because rock crystal gets what are called inclusions, and to get clear rock crystal is very difficult, particularly big bits. So there are these little gaps, which are slightly irregular in shape, and I thought, well, that's pretty fancy. And Leonardo was a bit of an expert on rock crystal. He was asked to judge vases that Isabella d'Este was thinking of buying, and he loved those materials. 

So when I was back in Oxford, I went to the geology department, and I said, "Let's have a look at some rock crystal." And in the Ashmolean Museum, in a wunderkammer of curiosities, there is a big rock crystal ball, and that has inclusions, so we photographed it under comparable lighting conditions I also began to look at the heel of the hand underneath the globe in the "Salvator Mundi"; there are two heels. The restorer thought it was a pentimento, but I wondered if he was recording a double refraction of the kind you get with a calcite sphere. If this proves to be right, it would be absolutely Leonardesque. I like these things when they're not just connoisseurship. None of the copyists knew that. They just transcribed it. Some of them do better than others, but none of them got this crystal with its possible double refraction. And one of the points of the crystal sphere is that it relates iconographically to the crystalline sphere of the heavens, because in Ptolemaic cosmology the stars were in the fixed crystalline sphere, and so they were embedded. So what you've got in the "Salvator Mundi" is really a "a savior of the cosmos", and this is a very Leonardesque transformation.
Another thing I subsequently looked at is that there's a difference from what we would call depth of field — the blessing hand and the tips of the fingers are in quite sharp focus. The face, even allowing for some of the damage, is in quite soft focus. Leonardo, in Manuscript D of 1507-1508, explored depth of field. If you bring something too close to you, you can't see it and it doesn't have a sense of focus. If you've got it an optimum point, it's much sharper. Then you move it away and it gets less sharp. He was investigating that phenomenon. So there are these intellectual aspects, optical aspects, and things in terms of these semiprecious materials that are unique to Leonardo.

How would you describe the countenance of the "Salvator Mundi"?

Well, in a way, you could crudely describe it as the devotional equivalent to the "Mona Lisa," because it's very soft. Above his left eye — on the right as we look at it — there are some of these marks that he made with the heel of his hand to soften the flesh, and the face is very softly painted, which is characteristic of Leonardo after 1500. And what very much connects these later Leonardo works is a sense of psychological movement, but also of mystery, of something not quite known. He draws you in but he doesn't provide you with the answers. Most Salvator Mundis are pretty straightforward. 

Now seeing it for the first time in the London show — in the demanding company of other Leonardos — it is a relief to see how well its stands up. It has that uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest. I'm now thinking that it is closer to the late St. John in the Louvre than it is to the "Last Supper" or even the “Mona Lisa." This means that it should not really be in an exhibition about Leonardo at the court of Milan. But who cares?

You mention the uncanny quality of his portraits, like the "John the Baptist" — they really do have a disturbing, supernatural aspect.

Yeah, the "John the Baptist" is like that. It's terrifically dirty, but it's got that quality to it, I believe — the spiritual mystery, when John is saying, "There is one who cometh after me," and he's pointing upwards, smiling this somewhat smug spiritual smile. The "Salvator Mundi" is very much that kind of thing. It's designed to not just be a full frontal Salvator Mundi who's looking at you, but creates that ambiguity.

Before the “Salvator Mundi” was discovered, you said that the "Bella Principessa" was the most important rediscovery of a work by Leonardo in over a century. Does that still hold true?

I don't really want to wrangle — they're different sorts of things. The "Bella Principessa" is not a painting, it's not quite a drawing in the way we understand it, and it's not quite a manuscript illumination. It is exceptional. And the other one is a painting. I suppose, if you were interested in doing rankings, the "Salvator Mundi" is probably the more important thing to have come out, because people put paintings about drawings. But they're both special works, and I think at that level you're not doing ranking, frankly.

Reports have said the "Bella Principessa" may be worth as much as $150 million. The "Salvator Mundi" is put at being worth $200 million. Where do these figures come from? 

I absolutely don't know. They seem not to be well-founded. With unique objects like this, I don't know how you even begin to deal with that, but I don't really follow the market. I don't do evaluations. I don't know where those figures come from. 

The big question, of course, is will there be more discoveries? You write that more than four fifths of his overall output is unaccounted for.

Yeah. The best chance at discoveries is probably manuscripts and drawings, but the chance has become less, because people are so much more alert. No Leonardo painting has come along for a hundred years. There’s a British joke about buses that you wait half an hour for a bus and then two or three come together. Maybe Leonardo is like that. With Leonardo, I would never forecast anything.

What do you think happened with his famously lost “Leda and the Swan,” which was in Leonardo’s list of possessions when he died but which we now know only from his drawings and inferior copies by other artists?

Well, the last reference we had to that indicated it was on board that was splitting. It was painted on wood, as all Leonardo’s pictures were, and it was in the French collection. It had been in the bath at Francis I’s Appartement des Bains at Fontainebleau, not literally in the bathroom, but in the suite of rooms that included the bathing facility, and I think it probably deteriorated. 

People then had no reverence for deteriorated paintings. If it survived at all, then probably it met the fate of so many other paintings and was hideously over-painted, which is what happened to the “Salvator Mundi.” So it could just be that the “Lady” is under inches of hideous over-paint, but my feeling is it’s fallen to bits.{C}{C}

Then there’s the question of the bronze horse in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, which some claim to be a Leonardo. What do you think?

Doesn’t stand a chance. Leonardo knew horse anatomy. He knew how a rearing horse balanced and how you get a horse back on its haunch. And you don’t do it with the legs parallel to the ground and the rear hooves cocked in that way. It’s a terrific sculpture. It’s a good deal later. And, why, on what is quite reasonable scale from what we know of the horse, why would Leonardo suddenly forget all the anatomy? I don’t think it stands a chance.

Are there any sculptures extant that stand a chance of being by Leonardo? Are there any claims that you would say come close, or are on the fence?

There are two things in sculpture that are worth looking at. One is a terracotta bust of Christ and the other is a little white horse. The problem, though, is that we’ve got no sculpture to compare it with. The little wax study of a horse is very pretty, but in terms of method it’s a bit of a nightmare because we don’t have a single piece of Leonardo sculpture to work with.

What is your opinion of Maurizio Seracini’s search for the “Battle of Alighieri” in Florence’s Palazzio Vecchio, which has become the inspiration for a Hollywood thriller?

I hope sincerely that it succeeds. If I were a betting man, I would be betting money against him finding it.

Then you aren’t convinced by the theory that Giorgio Vasari covered it with a fall wall before painting over it, leaving only the words “Circa Trova” (“Seek and You Will Find”) concealed within his painting as a clue to the Leonardo’s location?

I don’t find that. Even if there is a gap in the wall that Vasari has built, if you think that this is on oil and it’s been sealed up, with all the changes of humidity and temperature I suspect that what would be left would be a pile of paint at the bottom of the gap. But if Maurizio finds it, I will rush over and kiss him.

As you point out in the book, Leonardo’s massive celebrity today is symptomatic for our age: he’s famous for being famous, even among those who have no interest in his achievements. At the same time he seems to prefigure so many modern preoccupations in art, just as he did with science and technology. As you point out, he created these artful caprices for the court, which Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg now calls early forms of performance art. Have you given this matter any thought?

The great feste, the celebrations he designed for weddings for the Duke of Milan’s family and other events elsewhere — yeah, they’re amazing. They would make some of the modern experts of stage machinery look on with awe. What we have today would look quite small-scale in comparison. It would have been just extraordinary. Leonardo was not a performance artist in that he’s using his own personal body or whatever as a performance, but he was mounting a show. He was an impresario of visual effects, if you like a slightly ponderous way of describing it.

Didn’t he also act out humorous and moral tales?

Well, yes. There are these tales and prophesies that he said were to be read out in a berserk manner. Whether he did that himself or he got somebody else to do them is unclear. But, yeah, he did court entertainment.

I’m sure that performance artists would be very interested in that.

Yeah. Perhaps we should give a lecture on Leonardo as a performance artist. The trouble is a lack of evidence. We have a few descriptions, and a few bits of drawings, but there’s a disproportionately tiny amount of visual evidence for what were the grand, very expensive events.

He also embraced the role of chance in his art-making in a way that somewhat prefigures Duchamp and Cage. How else could one argue that Leonardo was a modern?

I don’t much like the formula that Leonardo is a modern. You can say that he’s a man ahead of his time, but he’s deeply embedded in his time. I’d rather look at him in his time and say, “This is absolutely fantastic.” And to some extent, the danger of saying, “He’s a modern,” is that we apply retrospective and unhistorical judgments, the things he did which anticipate what we do, then become order of value. A historian, I think, should resist that. It’s judging the past by our own standards. Our own standards, perhaps, are not all they might be.{C}{C}

How would you say his artwork is relevant to the art being made today, aside from its extreme virtuosity?

He has an extraordinary communicative power that is both very overt but also very withdrawn and subtle, so each generation in a sense can find what they want. I think great art is essentially generous, that it invites you to have a role. Lesser art sort of tells you what to look at, but artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt and so on, they’re very generous. They say to the spectator, “I’m giving you this, I’m leaving you a lot of room.” So in a way, each generation can come in and see their own Leonardo, who is not, obviously, totally different from Leonardos of the past, but who allows each of us individuals, and each in our age collectively, to work imaginatively with what he provides, like all great artists, essentially generous in what he gives us.

Another specific aspect to his work that is relevant to artists today, however, is that he deals with the problems of hyper-naturalism, which is an idea now current due to computer animation and the “uncanny valley,” which is a fascinating thing.

I wrote an essay for a Met exhibition on Lombard painting and I did use the term “hyper-naturalism.” What he is doing is that he knows he can’t paint a leaf that is a real leaf, so he uses paint to make something that is probably even more convincing as a leaf than a leaf. So he’s trying to get that almost supernatural sense of the reality of leaf, of its existence, so it is more real than the real in a way. Because he’s remaking nature, he’s not copying nature. He’s not doing the kind of painted photograph. He’s trying to get the real substance of how nature is, what it looks like and how it works.

In your introduction to the second edition of your Leonardo book, you write that your "tone has become more 'literary' and personal," and that you’ve become more sympathetic to the “myth” of Leonardo. How would you explain the evolution of your relationship to the artist?

The relationship is not so much a relationship or evolutionary relationship with the artist, but with the reader. I now have a sense that when writing about such things it may be more honest not to say, “It has been noticed that,” but, “If we look at this, look at what we can see….” So it’s a kind of personal loosening up in my relationship with the reader, rather than something that is new in relation to the artist. In my new book “Christ to Coke,” I begin each chapter in a quite personal way. I’m not saying history should be like that, but I feel that as I’ve got later in my career that I’m willing to be more open and let my guard down more with the reader. And I think the readers on the whole like that because, while you present these objects in a sense as very dry, objective historical things, there’s a lot more going on. My next trade book is going to be called “Living with Leonardo,” and that’s actually going to be looking at the Leonardo business, and saying that behind this calm surface of scholarly objectivity there’s this stuff going on. There are crazy people. There are angels. There are lunatics. There are bullies. There are crooks. It will be saying that the process of history is actually a rather personal one.