Curators at the Museo del Prado in Madrid are the latest in a long string of scholars and other arts professionals to publicly announce their doubts about the attribution of the Salvator Mundi to Leonardo da Vinci. The painting was sold at Christie’s in 2017 as by Leonardo for a staggering $450m, however even prior to the sale there was considerable debate over this attribution.
The painting is featured in the Prado exhibition catalogueLeonardo and the copy of the Mona Lisa. New approaches to the artist’s studio practices, in a list of paintings which are attributed to, authorised or supervised by Leonardo da Vinci. The Salvator Mundi was purchased in 1900 by a man named Francis Cook, and has been referred to as the ‘Cook version’ of the painting in the Prado catalogue. In the Christie’s sale of 2017, it was sold to the Saudi culture minister, Prince Badr bin Abdullah, supposedly purchased for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. However, speculation has continued over the actual attribution of the painting.
Ana Gonzáles Mozo, senior technician in the Prado’s conservation department and lead curator of the exhibition, wrote in her catalogue essay that, “some specialists consider that there was a now lost prototype [of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi] while others think that the much debated Cook version is the original”. Mozo suggests that “there is no painted prototype” of the work by Leonardo, and proposes that another copy of the painting, the so-called Ganay version (1505-1515), is likely closest to Leonardo’s lost original. The Ganay version was, in fact, included in the Louvre exhibition, Da Vinci 500 years, in 2019, after the museum chose to remove the Cook version.
The 2019 Louvre exhibition was curated by Vincent Delieuvin, who also contributed an introductory essay to the Prado exhibition catalogue. Delieuvin refers to “details of surprisingly poor quality” in the Cook version. The curators at the Louvre and Prado are not the only ones to spark doubts over the attribution of the painting. In 2018, art historian Matthew Landrus stated that he was “100% certain” that the painting is by Leonardo’s assistant Bernardino Luini, and finished by Leonardo. He continued that Luini “is the only reasonable candidate for much of the authorship”, and that “by traditional standards, we can call it ‘a Leonardo studio’ painting.”
The Salvator Mundi will no doubt continue to cause controversy in the art world, given its uncertain attribution to such a well-known artist, and its huge auction price in 2017. The Prado exhibition will be open to the public until 23 January 2022.