Salvator Mundi: A circumspect description does not a negative verdict make


I have long been perplexed by the enmity The Art Newspaper has shown to a work of art that cannot defend itself. I refer to Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. Your front-page article in the November 2021 issue, “Prado downgrades $450m Leonardo Salvator Mundi”, is a particularly egregious example, as it is based on a blatant misrepresentation of a fine scholarly publication, the exhibition catalogue Leonardo y la copia de Mona Lisa del Prado.

It should be mentioned at the outset that in the catalogue no curator, conservator or official of the Museo del Prado expresses any opinion on the attribution of the painting, let alone downgrades it. Rather, as quoted in the article, Ana González Mozo, one of the five authors of the catalogue, reports, “Some specialists consider there was a now lost prototype, while others think the much debated Cook version is the original.”

A Prado specialist suggests that the Ganay version (above) of Salvator Mundi is the closest to Leonardo’s lost original and was painted by the same artist as the early copy of Mona Lisa at the Prado collection © Tangopaso

This circumspect description of the scholarly discussion about the painting can hardly be considered a negative “verdict”. The article goes on to state that González Mozo “suggests ‘there is no painted prototype’ by Leonardo”, but she is here referring to the Youthful Christ that Isabella d’Este requested of Leonardo in 1504, not the Salvator Mundi. Further, the article states: “Mozo proposes that another copy of Salvator Mundi, the so-called Ganay version (1505-15), is the closest to Leonardo’s lost original.” That statement is not to be found anywhere in the catalogue, which posits only that the anonymous author of the Ganay version painted the Prado Mona Lisa as well. These errors merit correction not only for the readers of The Art Newspaper, but for the numerous publications that have gleefully repeated them without question or verification.

Robert B. Simon,New York

Response from The Art Newspaper:

The index of the Prado catalogue Leonardo y la copia de Mona Lisa del Museo del Prado lists works associated with Leonardo in two distinct categories: Leonardo and Leonardo (attributed, studio, supervised/authorised by). The Gulf Salvator Mundi (formerly in the Cook collection) is recorded in the second category.

Our reading of the full text paragraph on the Salvator Mundi composition (p187) is that the Prado author, Ana González Mozo, believes the Ganay version is the finest in aesthetic terms, and that there is no existing painted prototype. She says, in discussing the drapery studies for the Salvator Mundi in the Royal Collection, that “Leonardo devised the composition but did not paint it as the various versions were circulating by 1650” [the English translation in the bilingual catalogue].

In her subsequent brief discussion about a Youthful Christ image, included in the same Salvator Mundi paragraph, she writes: “Once again [our emphasis] there is no painted prototype.” It is also notable that the Gulf (Cook) version is not among the 75 illustrations in the catalogue.

We were in contact with the Prado before our article was finalised and we also invited them to comment after publication, but their press office chose to let the catalogue and their current exhibition on the Mona Lisa copy express their position. We therefore stand by our December article—and welcome the debate.

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