This morning I looked at the front of the newspaper, and saw Jesus staring back at me. It was Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, a painting that had just sold at auction for over 450 million dollars, a new record for a work of art.
The article revealed that dealers had wagered the image of an enigmatic Christ dressed in a blue robe and holding a crystal orb could sell for far more [than its estimate] — given that da Vinci is a household name, fewer than 20 of his paintings survive, and this is the last one deemed by him in private hands.
It continued: The sale reflects the trophy-hunting atmosphere dominating the international art market lately… It helps that da Vinci is hailed as a hero of the Renaissance, a period in Europe when artists experimented with optical illusion and anatomical dissection to render their subjects lifelike and landscapes infinite.
In this work, da Vinci depicts Christ in flowing robes, his left hand cupping a crystal orb while his right is raised in blessing. The figure’s brown ringlets fall around his shoulders, framing a long face and dimpled chin.
Da Vinci painted the portrait around 1500, and it bounced among European royals for hundreds of years before shoddy cleaning efforts and overpainting rendered it almost unrecognizable.
The value of the painting lies clearly in its creator, a great artist and scholar, as well as in the rarity of his works. But it is also fitting that the subject of the painting, rendered with the skill and mastery for which that artist is known, is the incarnate God.
How could da Vinci, who lived 1500 years after Christ, have depicted Him with any authenticity, skeptics might ask. Isn’t this just a painting of a regular guy dressed up as Jesus?
God has made it possible to know Him by allowing us to know His Son. That knowledge, even that intimacy, is available to us who are in the Church through her Scriptures and teachings, in the Sacraments and in all her works. We are given the opportunity and ability not simply to know about Him, but truly to know Him. Leonardo knew his Lord.
The Word took flesh and dwelt among us, and ever since, God has had a human face. God took on our human nature, and in so doing revealed everything we have in common with Him; everything, that is, except sin.
One of the ways in which mankind resembles our Creator God is in our desire and our ability to create. This aspect of human nature was at its peak in Leonardo da Vinci, artist and inventor. Truth, beauty, and goodness were the subject and goal of his works, and as such echo the very creative work of God. Mortal artists share in the creative work of the immortal Creator whenever they bring into being some new image or object that is unique and good.
Because God became man, whenever an artist depicts in his work some reality that is truly human, he reveals something that is also true of God. Therefore, what makes this 500-year-old portrait beautiful, what makes it human, what makes it attractive, makes it also truly revelatory of Jesus, the Son of God. He is the Savior of the World, before our very eyes.
It seems fitting as we contemplate the End of Days in this final week of the liturgical year, to be up-to-the-minute with the art world and the latest international news. It is a gift of providence that commerce and journalism should conspire to present to a busy and even distracted modern society, this image of Jesus Christ, who is King of the Universe. It gives us pause to give thanks to our heavenly Father, and to artists, who reveal in Jesus God’s breathtaking glory -- and our own.Monsignor Smith