Experts uncover twist in the tale of ‘Salvator Mundi’

It was the most expensive painting ever sold at auction for an eye-watering £335 million in 2017. Now new evidence has surfaced, which supports an alternative back story to the much contested ‘Salvator Mundi’, said to be the last work by Leonardo da Vinci.

Art historians first thought the work may have been painted for King Louis XII of France, a patron of Da Vinci, and brought to England by French princess Henriette Maria in 1625 when she married King Charles I (1600-1649). Scholars propose that it remained with the new Queen in her apartments in Greenwich until Charles I was beheaded in 1649.

However, the painting also appears in an inventory of the collection of James, 3rd Marquis, later 1st Duke of Hamilton, held in his Chelsea home from around 1638-1641. The inventory is featured in an essay by 17th century specialist, Jeremy Wood, and the entry detailing ‘Christ: with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’ was spotted by Salvator Mundi expert, Margaret Dalivalle.

On the back of this discovery, experts are now asking if the painting, which is due to go on exhibit at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi in September is missing the prestigious royal provenance it was thought to possess.

There are of course some 20 versions of the Salvator Mundi painting by Leonardo’s pupils and followers. It may be that the Louvre’s version belonged either to Hamilton or Charles I. Dalivalle has proposed an alternative. She told The Art Newspaper that she found no evidence that the painting was brought by Henrietta Maria from France to England. Instead, she points to a document dated 18 October 1638, in which Charles I expressed his desire to have the pick of the paintings bought by Hamilton in Venice.

There is a strong possibility that this painting was seen at Chelsea House and chosen by the king at some point between 1638 and 1641, finding its way to the queen’s apartments at Greenwich,” Dalivalle stated.

Dalivalle and Wood have also theorised that the Salvator Mundi ended up in the Netherlands, where Hamilton’s brother transported the bulk of his art collection after Hamilton was executed in 1649. This move seems to correspond with the production of an etching of the Salvator Mundi by Wenceslaus Hollar who lived in Antwerp in 1650. The etching bears a Latin inscription, which reads “Leonardo painted it” and is etched with “from the original”.

The Louvre Salvator Mundi continues to be the source of much speculation by leading art historians and it is not yet possible to verify the Hamilton provenance. Forthcoming research into Hamilton’s collecting habits may shed more light on the mysterious painting.

Wondering what a day in the life of an art historian and provenance researcher is like? Read our ‘Strawberry Hill Treasure Hunt’ blog produced in conjunction with Strawberry Hill House and find out how an expert unlocks the hidden stories behind missing masterpieces.

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