Fake Art in times of Fake News: the case of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”

by María Magdalena Ziegler 

“Fake News” is probably one of the most used terms in social networks these days. But a competition is now coming up close. On October 19th, Chicago Art Institute expressed that Trump’s bragged Renoir’s was not such. Art Institute spokeswoman Amanda Hicks said the painting of the French painter called “Two sisters on a terrace” (1881) is part of the museum collection since 1933.

renoir sisters
Auguste Renoir, “Two sisters on a terrace”, 1881

If that’s the case, then President Trump owns fake art. That may be in style with his so-called fake news, but also should give us a hint of what is behind media and the creation of a masterpiece in the midst of spectacular news. Yes, I am pointing to the painting attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: “Salvator Mundi”.

Attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci,
Attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, “Salvatore Mundi”, c. 1500

What’s up with Leonardo’s masterpiece?

Allegedly, the Italian master of the Renaissance painted it around 1500 and the chronology of the painting ownership was presented by Christie’s as a proof of its authenticity. It refers its commission, attributed to King Louis XII of France after the invasion of Milan, but concludes accepting it could have been made “over a period of years” after 1500.

Experts like Martin Kemp (Oxford University Emeritus Professor in Art History) certified that “Salvator Mundi” was a beautiful painting from Leonardo himself. So, what is wrong with this painting? Why do some people people believe it’s fake art? The doubt floating around is curious because engravings of an image of Christ made by Leonardo have been well-known for a long time. So, why?

What did Leonardo do?

I have tried to entangled the opinions around this artwork and I have found it fascinating how Leonardo has become the Almighty artist of the History of Art. I mean it. Leonardo was able to do whatever you think of according to the public and the media that feeds that mythology around the genius of Da Vinci.

First of all, Leonardo set a personal standard for his paintings and once he was satisfied with it, he just used it as a pattern. We can see that if we compare the faces of the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child. It has always astonished me that Saint John and Lisa look like twins; that the Virgin Mary is the copy of Saint Anne and Lisa and Saint John. Leonardo copying Leonardo? No, he just set an ideal reasoned standard. Plato at his best, no matter how aristotelean they say Leonardo was.

“Salvator Mundi” seems to fit into that leonardesque standard. Maybe too much and that is the problem. It seems forced to be a Leonardo’s work. But the media has helped a great deal to create this aura Leonardo is accused to imprint in his paintings. It has been called “the male Mona Lisa”. The painting has became a great fuzz. But some still have doubts.

Let’s do some Art History research

When I first saw “Salvator Mundi” the famous Albrecht Dürer self portrait from 1500 came to my mind. Wait! I am not implying Dürer is the real author of the so-called last Leonardo. I am just bringing to the table that the composition of “Salvator Mundi” is not the usual composition Leonardo would have used. Painters from Northern Europe like Hans Menling or Jan Gossaert used this same view as Dürer in his self portrait. It was usual to them.

In fact, Dürer made his own version of “Salvator Mundi” around 1505, but he didn’t finished it. In this version from the german painter, Christ is dulcified by the tilting of his head, which (is notable) Dürer planned to paint in very much detail. Since the painting is unfinished, it is complicated to assert a conclusion about its look. Nevertheless, I must insist that Dürer began painting it between his two trips to Italy, so it’s possible he would have let that sweet Italian style irrigate the conception of this piece.

Albrecht Dürer, “Salvator Mundi”, c. 1505

Let’s not forget about the fake news-fake art duo around the $450 million auctioned piece when we look at Simone Martini’s “Salvator Mundi”. It is obvious the primitive sense it throws to the viewer. The byzantine manners of the painting are truly there, but edulcorated by Martini’s own stile dolce.

Simone Martini,
Simone Martini, “Salvator Mundi”, 1317

What did Christie’s sell?

It seems a forced way to convert a traditional image of Christ blessing into a Leonardo. Jokes aside, it looks like someone used one of those photo apps people have in their smartphones. The Leonardo filter, I think. In order to create a masterpiece you just need to apply the right filter to any image. There are a lot of Van Gogh like filters out there, why not a Leonardo?

Thing is if this painting was a true Leonardo, its worth would have been impossible to pay by anyone on Earth.  Hundreds of millions is a little amount if this was “the last Leonardo”.  Thus, Susan Moore has said that “the sale of ‘the last Leonardo’ is a triumph for the dark art of marketing”. According to Moore, behind the sale of this painting was “the darker arts of an unabashedly manipulative promotional campaign.”

There is so much truth in that. Even the promotional video (below) produced by Christie’s created a sensation that this painting was a ghostly vision of something extraordinary, once in a life time. People of all ages are shown moved, impressed, amazed, even about to break down in tears. Christie’s Alan Wintermute has called it “the Holy Grail of old master paintings.”

Fake News + Fake Art

There is another detail worth considering. This “Salvator Mundi” was auctioned by Christie’s in a Post-War & Contemporary Art saleWhy not in an Old Masters sale? The answer could be so simple it hurts: because between old masters this painting might have looked like a spooky fraud; while surrounded by Basquiat, Rothko and De Kooning, it would glow. Not because Basquiat or Rothko are lesser artists than Leonardo, but because “Salvator Mundi” would have been out of context, glowing between an abstract work.

Fake news along with a masterpiece of marketing created fake art. The fake news is that this is in fact a Leonardo’s and the most expensive painting ever. That created fake art worth hundreds of millions.

Robert Scott said that “the exact sum of the final bid doesn’t really matter”. And he’s right. Later after Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev paid $127.5 million in 2013 for this painting, he declared he has been cheated and that he would be glad to sell it for at least $30 million. But it turned out to be sold for $450.3 million, Dmitry. You won! The art world didn’t.

“The most expensive painting ever sold” is this painting jingle. It would be remembered by that catchy tag line. It’s so fake news as it is fake art. By the time you read this, there is a someone out there owning a $450 million painting of Jesus. That’s all that is.


Cartoon Salvator Mundi
Patrick Chappatte (for The New York Times, Nov. 16th, 2017)

8 thoughts on “Fake Art in times of Fake News: the case of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”

  1. I have no words for describe my admiration by this incredible post, it is impressive how you deeply found the truth about this matter, congrats dear teacher, I wish you happiness, success and prosperity in all your projects. Your brilliant brain is upon many surfaces.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. MM

    Have you ever ask yourself, if perfect shaped glass balls where common 500 years ago ?
    The painting apears to be made out of several pictures. It has no inner harmony or sense. It is a cheap fake peace of art.
    It is just another action with the assistance of net wealthy persons to tell the people fake stories and make money out of it. Now someone has a damage of 450 millions or even more and stays anonymous. So why can he not be named and claim that? Does he has to pay to someone something ? Why are there no questions?

    Liked by 1 person

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