Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi: guest post by Hebe

Not sure if folks overseas can catch up on the BBC programme we saw about this painting, but it's here on i-player for those who have access.

I am also not sure what pictures I am allowed to post on my blog from among those online, but to stay on the right side of copyright law, I will not display but link to a picture so you can see what we're talking about.  The one closest to the picture we saw in the programme is this one.

And, UK peeps, don't miss out on this!!

Okay - here follow Hebe's thoughts on da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (which means 'Saviour of the World')

Salvator Mundi

We were excited to watch the programme on BBC 1 on Sunday, with Fiona Bruce, on the painting which it is believed could be the lost ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci. 
It was an insightful programme about Da Vinci although somewhat dominated by many shots of Bruce wandering around, but we felt it could have had more analysis of the painting itself.  So here are some thoughts, and feel free to add some of your own.

First of all, we are inclined to think it is by him, and I’m going by that assumption.
The first thing I thought when I first saw the painting (in the Radio Times) was how blue the robes are.  In fact, after googling later, I discovered that Jesus (at least as Salvator Mundi) seems more generally to be depicted with red robe and blue blanket (I think it is like a priest’s stole, but Jesus nearly always seems to have his handy blanket draped over a shoulder).  The gold braid also drew my attention.  I could be reading a lot into this, but it looks like the symbols of the chi rho [abbreviation to mean 'Christ'. Ember] sideways on (PX). 
Compare these to the Christ in da Vinci’s Last Supper.  There he is more of a man, I think, yet to undergo full realisation into Christhood.  Here he has become fully the Christ – he wears the colour of heaven, no longer red, the colour of Adam.  And what was a simple jewel on his collar has become the name of Christ.
I am interested in the jewels, and wonder if they have any significance.  I read somewhere on the internet that the 8 sided star (look carefully at the bottom jewel, it is set in an embroidered star) is the symbol for resurrection, and the gold threads are also 8 stranded.
Apart from my initial response to his great outfit, I was surprised by the muted, undefined face.  The beard is not as strongly painted as I’m used to seeing in standard depictions of Jesus, indeed the facial hair could almost be mistaken for shadows.  The whole face has an androgynous quality, and his chest has the lightest suggestion of a bosom. 
The more we considered it, the more this Christ looked as though it was supposed to represent male and female.
After seeing the documentary on BBC 1, we thought this painting also bore a strong resemblance to self-portraits by da Vinci.  The pose is very like a self-portrait, the direct eyes like the view we have of ourselves in the mirror.
We think that da Vinci might be trying to show that the eternal resurrected Christ lives in everyone, every man, every woman, in me.

In the documentary one of the experts described da Vinci’s painting technique as layering ‘glazes’, or building up washes is how I’d put it, of colour over a white background.  The gives a luminosity, as if the light comes from within the skin, rather than overpainted white highlights reflecting off a surface.  The face in this painting is very subtle, it’s possible that it has lost paint over the years, especially since it was painted over.  But I also wonder if it is meant to be painted so delicately to give the face of Christ maximum luminosity, emerging from the dark background.  Like the Light of the World; like the ‘light shining in the darkness’ in the opening of John’s gospel.

His hair has a reddish tint, which Sr. Julia tells me is typical of medieval Florentine art (I don’t know if that is true of elsewhere, but it seems there is a strong tradition of depicting Jesus with red hair)  Fair to red hair and green eyes were considered beautiful and indicated purity.
Da Vinci is known (according to the documentary) for giving angels and the holy family these light delicate curls highlighted with gold and copper.  I find them oddly thin, the strands too insubstantial to be realistic.  Ember suggested that they are not so much representation of hair as a representation of light, radiating, glinting, like a halo.
As far as I can tell, and it may be to do with the quality of images I’ve seen, but here the eyes seem amber, golden brown rather than green.  I can’t think of any meaning for this, but there is quite a captivating quality to his eyes.  I find myself trying to read the expression in them, they draw you in with their faint ambiguity yet disarmingly direct gaze.
The other detail that draws attention is the globe (or crystal ball, I like to think!)  Later depictions of the Salvator Mundi also have a crystal globe, but they seem to be mimicking this original.  I don’t know if any earlier paintings have a crystal globe or if da Vinci set the ball rolling…
It looks to me, and this is entirely subjective of course, like he painted an object he physically had.  The detail of the internal flaws suggest he had studied and I guess become fascinated by the way light passes through polished crystal. [And maybe, because it is a flawed world?  And maybe a crystal ball because Christ can look into it, ‘read’ it.  And I love that he holds it in his hand. Ember]
I wonder why he showed the world as a clear ball.  Is it a new world, made new, restored by Christ?  Is its clarity a representation of purity?  If so, I wonder if the flaws have any other significance.  Maybe they are not so much flaws as effervescent bubbles, simply joyful.
 The detail of three dots of light please me, a reference to the Trinity I like to think. 
The globe brings to mind the quote from 1 Corinthians 13, “for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.”
This also resonates with the indistinct but emerging sense of the face.  The restorer of the painting said that Leonardo da Vinci said that dusk was the best time to paint for the light, and that she found the painting became more alive at that time of day. 

Anyway, those are some of mine, Ember’s and Alice’s thoughts on the painting, I expect there’s more to say and discover.  But how about you?  let us know what you think too. 



2 comments:

Roberta said...

Dear Hebe and Ember,
Every piece of this post is a wonderful gift. I know I will spending
much enjoyable time re-reading Hebe's essay, and re-viewing and comparing da Vinci's portrayals of Jesus in the "Salvator Mundi" and in "The Last Supper".
I am struggling with my computer to install the Adobe Flash Player that will accommodate the video you included.
Thank you

Ember said...

:0)