By Robert A. Rees
Robert A. Rees is the director of Mormon Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. He is compiling a collection of his essays on the Book of Mormon, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On October 2017, I got a call from my son-in-law Paul Clark informing me that Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, would have a rare three-day showing in San Francisco. I knew I had to be there.
So the next day, my friend Mara Alverson and I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and wended our way to Christie’s Auction House in the Dogpatch District. We were surprised to find only a few dozen people waiting in line and soon found ourselves standing eight feet from the painting, with a clear view and ample time to take it in.
According to Christie’s, Salvator Mundi is “one of fewer than 20 surviving paintings accepted as from the artist’s own hand.” But that confirmation was only made recently after a long history of its being attributed to one of da Vinci’s students and only after extensive cleaning and analysis by da Vinci experts. The painting, which has a long, uncertain, and even mysterious provenance, auctioned for over $450,000,000!
Standing in front of the painting, it seemed impossible to plumb the depths of Leonardo’s artistic-spiritual vision, even if I had hours to spend in its contemplation. I had the feeling that Leonardo had captured something of the Savior’s essence and presence that I had not seen in the thousands of other portrayals of Christ I have viewed over the past sixty years (including at a number of museums and galleries in London last summer). It was the same feeling I have when listening to Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions and his great Mass in B-Minor.
I have come to recognize that feeling in the presence of great art, music, and literature—“a witness of the spirit” that confirms the revelation of something both true and beautiful. Wallace Stevens says, “The wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.” Some of what is “wholly other” is revealed by what is “holy other”—spiritual insights of heart, mind, and soul that help one transcend the ordinary to experience the extraordinary. That’s what I felt pondering Leonardo’s Christ.
We have very little knowledge of what Christ looked like. Most scripture scholars and cultural archeologists posit that the Nazarene likely looked like a typical Jewish man of his time. After all, he is recorded as easily slipping away from crowds or enemies, and Judas had to specifically identify him to those seeking his harm. Thus, we can speculate that physically he had no especially distinguishing features. This is confirmed by Isaiah who said, “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (53:2). But his spiritual beauty was always there for those who had eyes to see, as is evident in Leonardo’s spiritual imagination. As the artist himself said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.”
Salvaltor Mundi utterly captivated me—through both the painting itself and its constituent parts. For example, I was drawn into the deep blue of Christ’s tunic and stole, which is made richer by Leonardo’s technique of beginning with underpainting and then applying glazes in a style known as sfumato (from the Italian word meaning “smoke”). In da Vinci’s own words: “When a transparent color lies over another color differing from it, a compound color is composed which differs from each of the simple colors.”
It is significant that Christ’s tunic is blue, a color associated in Medieval paintings with “heavenly grace,” which is why it is also the color most often identified with Mary, as one sees in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.
The brown in Salvator Mundi, seen most vividly in the X-shaped “St. Andrew’s” cross fronting Christ’s upper body, is also significant since, in contrast to the heavenly blue, it signifies earthly or mortal qualities, including poverty and humility.
Both colors are magnified in the transparent globe the Savior holds, which symbolizes not just the Holy Spirit but also how Christ’s being and mission combine the celestial and mortal spheres—he holds both heaven and earth in his hand. Art historians, including Walter Isaacson, Leonardo’s most recent biographer, are puzzled by the fact that the objects shown in the orb are neither distorted nor inverted, as one might expect. My take on this is that Leonardo, who was extremely knowledgeable about optics, intended to show that in Christ there is no distortion or inversion. He is not only the light of the world, but the creator of both light and world, and the only pure and true being to walk the earth.
Perhaps of particular note to Latter-day Saints is the eight-pointed star formed by the overlapping squares surrounding the pearl at the center of the cross over his solar plexus. Found abundantly in LDS temples, this particular cross is associated with Melchizedek (“King of Righteousness”) and—since the ancient prophet was an archetype of Christ—with Christ himself. Also, in Greek, the letter X is the first letter of Christ’s name. It symbolizes, among other things, resurrection. There are multiple eight-oriented symbols in the painting which, combined with the many circular symbols, remind me of Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man—what might be called his secular Ideal Man.
There are many other things one might observe about this painting, but the element that captured my attention the most was Jesus’ eyes. I don’t fully understand how Leonardo rendered the gaze of the Lord, but I found myself drawn to those eyes as if they were penetrating my soul. While Adrian Searle, art critic for the Guardian, described them as “the glazed look of someone stoned,” I found them haunting. The amber color tinged with red, the slight difference in the size and alignment of the pupils, and the different shading around the eyes make them even more so. They remind me of Joseph Smith’s description of the vision of Christ he witnessed in the Kirtland Temple: “His eyes were as a flame of fire.”
The beauty as well as the mystery of the painting is undoubtedly enhanced by Leonardo’s employment throughout the painting of “divine proportion” or the golden ratio, which was invented (or discovered) by his contemporary, Luca Pacioli. Published in 1509 and illustrated by Leonardo, Pacioli’s Compendio Divina Proportione (Compendium on the Divine Proportion) applies the golden mathematical ratio to a variety of the arts. What the ratio produces—including in Salvator Mundi—is a harmonious beauty pleasing to eye, mind, and heart.
The final point I would make about this remarkable painting is the way in which, through color, symbolism, facial expression, clothing, hair style (those magnificent curls!), and overall harmony, it seems to suggest the unification of male and female. It isn’t that Christ is specifically (or perhaps completely) androgynous, but rather that—as in his nature, teachings, and actions—he embodies the unity and harmony of both masculine and feminine natures and virtues, and therefore all of humanity. Such harmonization seems particularly important for our day.
It is unlikely that I will ever see this glorious portrayal of Christ again, but seeing it once will suffice until that time Christ promises when we will be blessed to see him face to face. The last lines of Martin Schalling’s lovely hymn,
“Herzlich Lieb Hab Ich Dich, O Herr” (“Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart”), which Bach used as the final chorale for his magnificent St. John Passion, expresses that ultimate promise of our awakening in his presence:
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.