Materials and Techniques
The study and identification of the materials in a painting and the manner in which they are employed, in comparison with other securely documented works that have been the subject of similar analyses, help to understand the artist’s process and establish the school and period to which a painting belongs. Technical studies cannot, however, “authenticate” a painting; they cannot prove, in other words, that is by a particular master.
The Artist’s StudioIn Leonardo’s notebooks he describes the ideal studio conditions and light for painting. 12
Small rooms or dwellings discipine the mind, large ones distract it . . .The painter who works from nature should have a window which he can raise and lower . . . A broad light high up and not too strong will render the details of objects very agreeable. The light for drawing from nature should come from the north in order that it may not vary. And if you have it from the south, keep the window screened with cloth, so that with the sun shining the whole day the light may not vary . The height of the light should be so arranged that every object shall cast a shadow on the ground of the same length as itself.
An object will display the greatest difference of light and shade when it is seen in the strongest light, as by sunlight, or at night, by the light of a fire. But this should not be much used in painting because the works remain crude and ungraceful.
An object seen in a moderate light displays little difference in the light and shade; and this is the case towards evening or when the day is cloudy, and works then painted are tender and every kind of face becomes graceful. Thus, in everything, extremes are to be avoided: too much light gives crudeness; too little prevents our seeing. The medium is best.
If you should have a courtyard that you can at pleasure cover with a linen awning that light will be good. Or when you want to take a portrait, do it in dull weather, or as evening falls. Note in the streets, as evening falls, the faces of the mean and women, and when the weather is dull, what softness and delicacy you may perceive in them. Hence, O Painter! have a court arranged with the walls tinted black and a narrow roof projecting within the walls. It should be 10 braccia wide and 20 braccia long and 10 braccia high and covered with a linen awning when the sun is shining; or else paint a work towards evening or when it is cloudy or misty, and this is a perfect light.
This is useful advice for lighting paintings in general, not only works by Leonardo. During the hundred of hours I spent with the Salvator Mundi on an easel in my north light studio, I observed that when the light began to fall towards the end of the day, the head assumed a powerful, three-dimensional character, the flesh tones began to glow from within and the figure came to life in an extraordinary way. It was a great privilege to experience this painting as Leonardo himself would have done. I have found this is true of other artists. Titian’s paintings, for example, are transformed in a similarly marvelous and unexpected way when the light is lowered. The high light levels we are accustomed to flatten images and we cannot appreciate them as the artist meant us to do. This also speaks to reproductions and to the distortions produced by photo lamps of different color temperatures referred to in the section of this website with the various images that have been made of the Salvator Mundi.
The Salvator Mundi is painted on a walnut panel measuring 65.5 cm. in height and 45.6 cm in width along the top edge and 45.1 cm along the bottom edge. This discrepancy in the dimensions is due to uneven trimming of the reserve along the left side of the panel.
The wood identification was made in 2011 by George Bisacca, Conservator of Panel Paintings, Department of Paintings Conservation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on visual inspection. In 2018 a group of wood scientists from the University of Florence (Professor Luca Uzielli; Dr. Lorenzo Riparbelli; Dr. Giovanni Signorini) confirmed that the support was walnut based on a study of the features of the grain as seen in the x-radiograph.
The panel was thinned when it was marouflaged and cradled and today its thickness ranges from 4.5-5 mm. Other autograph works on walnut panels vary in thickness from 5 to 8mm. Leonardo frequently used single planks of walnut as supports for paintings that he began in Milan. These include: Portrait of a Musician, the Belle Ferronière, Lady with an Ermine and Saint John. The unfinished St. Jerome, although generally considered to have been painted in Florence around 1480, is also on a walnut support.
With one exception, paintings believed to have been painted by Leonardo in Florence are on poplar. These are: The Annunciation, Ginevra de’ Benci, TheAdoration of the Magi, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and the Mona Lisa (a thin single plank). The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre was presumably on poplar but was transferred from its original support and is now on canvas. The Virgin of the Rocks in London, although perhaps begun in Milan, is on a panel composed of poplar planks. Walnut, because of its cost and weight, would not have been suitable for such a large work. Dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, is not applicable to either poplar or walnut because the annual growth rings are eratic, unlike oak, for which both the date the tree was felled as well as the geographic region can be identified with accuracy. In any event, dendrochronology provides only a terminus post quem.
The walnut panel adopted for the Salvator Mundi was an inferior plain sawn plank, with both tangential and radial grain. Although the panel specialist who worked on the painting characterized the damage in the lower part of the composition along the central axis as resulting from a knot, this is unlikely since the cut came from close to center of the trunk and may include some heartwood. It is in this, the weakest part of the panel, that the damage occurred. This flaw in the the walnut makes it a substandard cut. Dr. Lorenzo Riparbelli, a Florentine wood scientist, described it is essentially a discard and Leonardo cannot have failed to recognize this. When planning the composition he oriented the panel so that the flaw along the central axis would not coincide with the forehead, as it would had he used it in the other direction. Why and under what circumstances would Leonardo have resorted to such a manifestly defective piece of wood for an important painting? It might be worthwhile to consider this when deciding when and where this painting was begun. Leonardo’s other paintings are on proper wood panels, with the exception of the early Adoration of the Magiwhose support is somewhat clumsily constructed. Although he often experimented with methods to achieve the painterly effects he desired, and sometimes this went drastically wrong, he was careful about choosing his materials, especially for a project on which he was to lavish so much time and care over a period of many years.
DETAIL OF THE DAMAGE IN THE LOWER PART OF THE PANEL WHERE THE EMBROIDERED STOLE IS SECURED WITH A CABOCHON-SET BROOCH.
There is a reserve of unpainted wood on three sides of the painting with a slight crest of white ground along the edges of the paint layers. As noted above, the left side has been trimmed slightly but a sliver of the reserve remains along the top left edge. This demonstrates that the composition has not been cut down, although a tiny fraction may be missing along the lower left. The composition is closely cropped: both the blessing hand and the crystal orb were painted right up to the edges of the panel.
Page with an illustration of a working frame from Paris MSA
The same page as illustrated and translated by Jean Paul Richter
The panel should be pear or service-tree or walnut. You must coat it with mastic and twice-distilled turpentine with some white lead or, if you prefer, chalk, and put it in a frame so it may expand and shrink according to its moisture and dryness.
(Il legno sarà d’arcipresso o pero o sorbo o noce, il quale salderai cō mastico e tremētina secōda destillato e biacca o vuoi calcina, e metti ī telaio ī modo possa cresciere e discresciere secō l’umido o secco)
Detail of the barbe along the lower left edge
Although Leonardo was aware that wood expanded and shrank across the grain with changes in relative humidity, his working frames ultimately did not allow for the convex warp that panels can develop over time. After the recent removal of the cradle, once it was no longer constrained, the exceptionally reactive nature of the walnut support of the Salvator Mundi became apparent: the warp increases and decreases notably and rapidly with even the slightest change in relative humidity. Early Flemish paintings were painted in similar slotted frames, but the panels tend to be quarter sawn Baltic oak, which is stronger and more stable than the tangential cuts of poplar and walnut used by Leonardo. As the warp developed, the central part of the wood plank would be forced against the upper and lower edges of the slots of the working frame, constricting the movement of the wood across the grain and eventually the panel will split. In the case of the Salvator Mundi, a check opened near the center of the panel where the grain of the wood is most distorted. The resulting split eventually traversed the full height of the panel following the curve of the grain.
A hypothesis of this sort has been advanced for the The Mona Lisa, which has been extensively studied by wood scientists. It is painted on a single plank of thin poplar with a 6mm reserve of wood on all sides, demarkated by a crest of white preparation, this time of gesso and an imprimitura layer, created while the panel was in a working frame. 13 Any number of Lombard panel paintings of this period have retained a wood reserve and crests of preparatory material, or barbe. The authors of the Mona Lisa study note the the fine quality of the plank, which, although it is a tangential rather than a radial cut, comes from the center of the tree trunk and is characterized by a notably straight grain. The reverse was thinned at some point in the past. According to Élizabeth Ravaud, a split in the panel in the upper left, which extends down to the top of the sitter’s head was provoked by the constriction imposed by the slotted frame. She does not specify whether or not she believes this to be the sort of working frame illustrated in the notebooks. 14
Early 19th century cradle on the reverse of
the Salvator Mundi
perimeter strainer (since removed.)
The presumed use of a working frame such as Leonardo describes begs the question of whether its members were composed of decorative moldings, like Flemish frames and when they were replaced by more elaborate frames, suitable for a royal collection. It is documented that Leonardo had three paintings with him in Clos Lucé when he was visited by Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona and his secretary, Antonio de Beatis on October 10, 1517. De Beatis records in his travel diary that they were shown a portrait of a Florentine lady, probably the Mona Lisa, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and a Saint John the Baptist. He does not mention whether or not they were framed. All three paintings were acquired by the French crown in 1518 and were presumably fitted into a traditional frame with a rabbet, rather than a slotted frame. In 1625, when Cassiano dal Pozzo saw the Mona Lisa on a visit to Fontainebleau, he noted that it was in a walnut frame. This would have been appropriate for sixteenth-century taste. The frame historian, Timothy Newbery, informs me that walnut and gold parcel gilt frames derive from Renaissance studioli and were often used for portraits because the warm color of the wood was felt to harmonize with the middle tones and, according to humanist thought, brought the viewer closer to the subject. Walnut frames were used to frame a set of maps in Palazzo Vecchio as late as 1563 but by 1625 would have been out of fashion.
In 1635, a gift from Cardinal Francesco Barberini was presented to Queen Henrietta Maria, a painting, considered to be by Leonardo (now recognized as a portrait, perhaps of Girolamo Casio, by Boltraffio at Chatsworth House). The precious frame of ebony, inlaid with silver and semi-precious stones is described. 15 Timothy Newbery suggests that this was probably a contemporary frame whose design may have been based on earlier walnut models but enriched.
The question remains: when were the original slotted frames removed and what damage had they already caused? The Louvre believes that the split in the upper left quadrant of the Mona Lisa was caused by the compression exerted by the slotted frame, which it retained for a long time because, it is further suggested, the oblique craquelure patterns located in the four corners and along the perimeter were also provoked by the restrictions imposed by the slotted frame. This is rather difficult to reconcile. As opposed to splits in the wood, which can occur within a few years, cracqulure occurs in the paint and ground layers, which lose flexibility over a longer period of time, perhaps fifty to one hundred years. The rigid layers then shatter, producing a variety of cracks as the support, whether canvas or wood, expands and contracts with changes in relative humity. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Leonardo’s paintings retained the utilitarian slotted working frames after they became part of the Royal Collection in 1518. Could they have been incorporated into a decorative frame by applying carved molding over the existing elements? Among the frames in the Kress Collection at the National Gallery in Washington there is a an early 16c Lombard parcel gilt walnut frame that still has the strainer and the edges of the original canvas incorporated into it. There are other examples of sixteenth-century frames applied onto a strainer with a stretched canvas. A panel in a slotted working frame would not have been so easy to adapt in his way but it is theoretically possible. I have never seen an example.
It is is also worth considering what sort of damage to the panel might have been provoked when the original slotted frame was removed.
There is another explanation of what provoked the split in the Salvator Mundi. Kristin Holder, a paintings conservator and panel specialist, noticed that there is evidence in the X-radiograph that the panel may have been restrained by pieces of wood nailed into the end grain. Along the top and bottom edges a series of short diagonal splits can be seen at relatively regular intervals and there are some voids where nails would once have been. It is possible that after the check developed, which given the poor quality of the plank might have happened rather quickly, pieces of wood were added to stablize it. This would have had just the opposite effect: by constraining the movement of the wood across the grain the split became worse.
By 1900 when it was sold to Sir Francis Cook, the panel had been thinned, glued to a pine board, and a cradle had been added. Cradles were invented in France in the late eighteenth century by Hacquin and continued to be used throughout the twentieth century. The cradle on the Salvator Mundi has characteristics of both English and French/low-countries cradles. The members that are glued to the panel in the direction of the grain are a softwood, which are less common in English cradles where they are more often of mahogany or cedar. The sliding members are oak, which would be unusual for a French cradle. The design of the cradle, with the glued members stepped in from the left and right hand side, is also unusual and suggests that it is quite old, perhaps early to mid-nineteenth century. From a structural point of view, the cradle was, in any case, merely window dressing since the panel had first been mounted to a pine board. The two interventions may not have been simultaneous, but there is no way to determine this.
The panel is also extensively worm tunneled by wood boring insects, which further undermines its structural integrity.
Two images with raking light give some sense of the corrugated surface of the panel and the many areas of repair in the background. This three-dimensional aspect of the surface is not reflected in any of the images and contributes to the difficulty of photographing the painting. Originally the surface would have been flat and smooth. As the panel reacted to fluctuations in relative humidity the grain of the wood became more prominent.
Analysis of a single sample from the blue robe by Dr. Kenneth Sutherland indicated that the binder was walnut oil for all layers including the preparation. 16 This cannot in itself lead to the conclusion that Leonardo used walnut oil throughout the painting, or in general, although he is reputed to have favored its use and discusses its preparation in his notebooks. It is more fluid than linseed oil and dries more slowly, characteristics favorable for extending the paint mixtures in thin layers. It discolors less than linseed oil.
Media analysis has been undertaken for two other works by Leonardo: the London version of the Virgin of the Rocks17 and the Madonna of the Carnation in Munich.18 In both instances the poplar support was prepared with a conventional gesso ground. In the London painting, the two layers of imprimitura consist of lead white mixed with a bit of carbon black bound with a non-heat bodied walnut oil; a second layer, unevenly applied, contained lead white and some lead-tin yellow. Some paint layers were bound with both heat-bodied walnut oil while linseed oil was identified in other mixtures.
For the Munich painting the painter applied only one layer of imprimitura containing lead white, linseed oil, and perhaps some fine particles of glass over a gesso ground. The paint layers were bound with mixtures of walnut oil.
It is notable that the Salvator Mundi does not suffer from the drying defects that afflict many of Leonardo’s works, whether from wrinkling (the Munich painting) or contraction cracks. Saint John the Baptist in the Louvre, a work often considered to have been painted in the same period and stylistically related to he Salvator Mundi, is marred by severely contracted paint in all of the dark passages: the hair, fur and background. Only the head is spared, and perhaps the arm with the pointing hand, although the latter was completely repainted by the seventeenth century, so it is difficult to state that with certainty. The Belle Ferronière and the Paris version of the Virgin of the Rocks are also afflicted by this defect, among other works. There are paintings with fewer film defects such as the Lady with an Ermine and the Mona Lisa, which however exhibits an extensive network of age cracks, perhaps due to the presence of a traditional gesso ground whose aqueous binder would be more reactive to changes in relative humidity.
The lack of true drying cracks suggests that Leonardo took particular care with this painting, perhaps choosing a binder that he knew dried properly, using just the right proportion of binder to pigment, and making sure that the under layers were thoroughly dry before applying a successive layer of paint. Could this unusually careful technique be related to his experiments with a “varnish” with which he is said to have been engaged in Rome between 1513-1515, for which he was admonished by Leo X? It is unlikely that the pontiff would have made a distinction between medium and varnish.
The preparatory layers
Leonardo’s instructions regarding the preparation of the panel continue on the same manuscript page as his drawing of the working frame, Paris Ms A:
Then go over it 2 or 3 times with alcohol in which you have dissolved arsenic or sublimate. Then give it a coat of boiled linseed oil that completely penetrates [the wood] and before it cools rub it [the surface] well with a cloth until it appears dry. Over this spread [a layer of] white lead in liquid varnish with a flat stick, then, when it is dry, wash it with urine. Then [transfer] your design with pouncing and outline it finely, and apply an imprimitura over it [composed] of thirty parts of copper green and one [part of] of copper green [mixed with] two parts of yellow. (Author’s notes in brackets)
(dipoi li dà con acquavite, che via sia dentro disoluto arsenico o solimato 2 o 3 volte, di poi dà olio di lino bolito in modo penitri per tutto, e inanzi si freddi fregalo bene con ū panno in modo parrà ascivtto, e dalli di sopra vernice liquida e biacca colla stecca, poi laua con orina, quādo è ascivtta; e poi spoluerezza e proffila il tuo disegnio sottilmēte e dà di sopra l’imprimitura di 30 parti di uerderame e vna di uerderame e 2 di giallo.)
The precise instructions given by Leonardo have not been confirmed by scientific analysis of any autograph works and they are difficult to interpret. Washing down the white lead preparation with corrosive agents might have been a method for driving it deep into the cellular structure of the wood. Something seems to have been left out of this recipe.
Other paintings by Leonardo and his followers on walnut panels that have been analyzed have preparations of lead white bound in oil without an underlying layer of the traditional gesso. 20 In the case of the Salvator Mundi, a proteinaceous medium was first applied to the panel, probably an animal glue, which was commonly used for this purpose, rather than the boiled linseed oil described by Leonardo. 21 Similar to Leonardo’s recipe, over this is a first ground containing lead white, a drying oil, and particles of glass. Over this a second layer was applied, that can be described as a second ground, or, less precisely, an imprimitura, 22 composed of finer particles of drying oil, white lead and glass, and a bit of lead tin yellow. Both layers are slightly translucent. 23 The particles of glass vary in size from less than one micron up to 30 microns long. Their composition is consistent with manganese-containing soda-lime glass. The lower ground layer contains a higher proportion of glass than the thinner upper layer. (This same soda-lime glass was also identified as an addition to some of the paint mixtures.) The addition of glass is not a singular innovation: glass particles have been noted in the preparatory and paint layers of many other Italian paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries. The glass particles functioned as a siccative to aid in drying and would have enhanced the translucency of the paint. 24
Preparations containing a small amount of lead tin yellow have been identified in a number of Milanese paintings on walnut from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as well as in the preparations of the London version of the Virgin of the Rocks and the Adoration of the Magi. In addition to glass particles and lead white, the ground layer contains lead fatty acid soaps (lead carboxylates), formed over time from a reaction between the lead white pigment and the oil medium, contributing to the translucency of the ground layer. 28
Upper left corner, St. Jerome
In Leonardo’s earlier paintings, the progression from drawing to painting follows more traditional procedures. Pouncing and drawing are evident in IR scans of Ginevra, and some other early works. The evolution of his technique seems to preclude such clear evidence of the transfer or the initial underdrawing. The IR scan of the Salvator Mundi can be compared with that of Saint John in which faint indications of spolvero can be discerned around the eyes.
Underpainted Sketch or Abbozzo
Leonardo describes how to begin painting by laying down the general modelling of the lights and darks:
First, give a general shadow to the whole of that extended part which is away from the light. then put in the half-shadows and the strong shadows, comparing them with each other and, in the same way, give the extended light in half tint, afterwards adding the half-lights and the high lights, likewise comparing them together.
(Dà prima una ōbra vniversale per tutta la parte cōtenēte che nō uede il lume, poi li dà ōbre mezzane e le principali a paragone l’una dell’altra, e così dà il lume cōtēnete di mezzano lume, dādoli poi i mezzi e prīcipali similmēte a paragone.)
There are wash-like black and translucent brown underpainted layers in the Salvator Mundi, analogous to the abbozzo layers visible in his two unfinished paintings of Saint Jerome and the Adoration of the Magi. The black wash is evident in Sample 1, taken from the upper part of the blessing hand. It consists of fine, densely packed black particles of bone black, which do not exhibit any fluorescence in UV light, suggesting an aqueous medium, a carbon based ink, or thin paint with a proteinaceous binder that does not contain oil or resin. In other samples, particularly beneath the shadows of the flesh tone, the initial paint layer is a medium-rich, translucent reddish-brown mixture containing tiny particles of vermilion, black and glass. The layer fluoresces in UV, indicating that the binder is oil or resin.
Similar warm brown underlayers containing red and black pigments have been noted in the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist. 31 Brown underlayers, possibly with different pigment compositions, have been observed in the Mona Lisa, Lady with an Ermine, and La Scapigliata. 32
|IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo
The wide range of mid-tones were created by interlayering semi-opaque mixtures and dark transparent glazes over the brightly saturated pink base color. The application of these layers was varied to create fine gradations in the shadows. The skillful manipulation of mixtures containing slightly varying proportions of pigment, rendering them more or less opaque, rather than simply blending the transitions between shadow and highlight, creates the sfumato, or smoke, as Leonardo described it:
In fact, in the Salvator Mundi the brush strokes are indistinguishable even under examination with a microscope.
The shadows of the flesh tones are built up with translucent glazes directly over the off-white preparation. The mixtures range in thickness from approximately 3 to 6 microns and vary in tone and in the proportion of pigment to medium. The following sequence is seen in a cross-section of paint from the deep shadow of Christ's raised hand: a lower medium-rich, brown-red layer containing vermilion and a small quantity of carbon black followed by four darker layers containing, in varying proportions, carbon and bone black with a few particles of vermilion. Slight fluorescence under UV could indicate that the final layers might contain a bit of red lake, but this was not confirmed by analysis. However, in the overall image of the painting in UV light, the flesh tones of the face fluoresce a bright pink, suggesting the presence of a madder lake.
|The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Head of Christ. Drawing for the Last Supper by a contemporary of Leonardo, possible after the original cartoon.
|Scala / Art Resource, NY
His hair is wavy and curled with a bluish and bright sheen, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of his head, in the mode of the Nazarenes . . .His beard is abundant, of the colour of his hair, not long but divided at the chin.
In the Salvator Mundi the corkscrew curls of the hair conform with the canonical medieval description. Although Christ has a beard in the Hollar etching, there is no physical evidence of the remains of a beard in the area of the chin. Even though the area has losses and is somewhat abraded, there is enough undamaged original that had there been facial hair, at least some of it would have survived. There is also no moustache, as in the etching. In late antiquity there were variations in how Christ was depicted and there are numerous images of a beardless Christ, including a 4th century sarcophagus that was conserved under the pulpit of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. (insert footnote: Adam Levine, The Image of Christ in Late Antiquity: A Case Study in Religious Interaction. D. Phil. thesis, Corpus Christi College, 2012.) In the arresting image of Christ in Majesty from the Gospel of Charlemagne there are tiny redish brush strokes on the chin that discreetly suggest some facial hair, like the Naples copy, if not a full beard.
Sarcophagus of Stilicone, 4th c., Sant’Ambrogio, Milan and Christ in Majesty, 8th c., from the Gospel of Charlemagne, BNF. Wikimedia commons
Like the Hollar etching, most of the versions and variants of the Salvator Mundi are bearded, although the copy in Naples, which is probably by one of Leonardo’s close followers, the beard is rather tentative, consisting of tufts of curls on the lower part of the chin so small and pale in color that they only can be discerned by looking closely at the passage in a strong light. In the drawing in the Brera of the head of Christ, once thought to be a cartoon for the Last Supper, is beardless.
Although the areas of the upper lip and lower jaw of the Salvator Mundi are badly damaged, there are no original remants of a moustache or beard. In the area of the chin, where there are several large losses and which has also suffered from abrasion, there are some old, darkened repaints that I did not remove. They may be coeval with the green repainting of the background. Also, the damage around the top of the head where only a few passages of later hair survive has the shape of a halo, perhaps an indication that one may have been removed when the background was scraped. (This halo shaped damage above the head is also present in the Ganay copy.) It is possible that the explanation for the beard in the Hollar etching is that when the original black background was repainted with thick green verdigris, a halo and beard were added to make Leonardo’s disquieting, somewhat androgynous image more conventionally pious and masculine. On an undated sheet, now incorporated in the Codex Atlanticus (680r) the artist wrote an enigmatic note:
When I made a Christ Child you put me in prison, and now if I show him grown up you will do worse to me.
(Quando feci Domene Dio putto, voi mi metteste in prigione; ora, s’io lo fo grande, voi mi farete peggio.)
Leonardo’s interpretation of Christ is still disturbing to some believers. 34
Detail of chin of the Salvator Mundi and the same passage in the copy from San Domenico Maggiore, Naples
Detail of eyes of the Salvator Mundi, cleand state
detail of knotwork pattern of the Lady with an Ermine
The blue draperies were underpainted with a translucent warm brown paint containing vermilion, carbon black, and particles of glass. Analysis by MFTIR, Raman and EDS showed the blue pigment it to be natural ultramarine, or lazurite, a mineral derived from lapis lazuli that was imported into Venice from modern-day northeast Afghanistan. It was then, as now, a semi-precious stone used in the manufacture of luxury goods such as jewelry and other decorative arts, and converted into ultramarine pigment of varying qualities. It was often difficult to obtain and by far the most expensive pigment in the Renaissance painter’s palette.
The ultramarine that Leonardo used for the Salvator Mundi contains exceptionally large particles of quartz, an impurity in the mineral. Its presence suggests that the pigment may have been made by simply grinding up the semi-precious stone, or that these impurities failed to be removed during the complex process of extracting the color with lye. Samples of blue from the London Virgin of the Rocks also contain quartz particles but they are considerably smaller.
While the pigment is stable in other media, such as egg tempera, when it is bound in an oil medium it alters. This can be seen in innumerable oil paintings, including many works by Leonardo. The degradation is known as ‘ultramarine sickness,’ and is characterized by severe blanching, rendering the modelling of the lights and darks illegible. 37 In the Salvator Mundi, the dark underpaint has asserted itself in patches throughout the drapery. Details such as the sharp pleats beneath the embroidered band along the top of the bodice and the omega-shaped drapery fold that bunches over the lower left band of the stole, clearly articulated in Leonardo’s preparatory drawing as well as in many copies of the painting, have become difficult to decipher. Recent studies of ‘ultramarine sickness’ have pinpointed its cause and confirmed that saturation of the paint can partially, if only temporarily, restore the earlier appearance of an affected area, a phenomenon already reported in the nineteenth century.
As already noted, the robe is painted up to the contours of the sleeve, the white cuff of the blessing hand, and the hand holding the orb. A small area located below the point at which the diagonal bands intersect, and the lower part of the sleeve was left black and might be considered unfinished. These opaque brownish black passages were not sampled so it is not possible to know if their composition is the same as the underpaint seen in several cross-sections, although additional layers must have been added since they are not translucent. It has been suggested that they are simply the underpainted abbozzo but their opacity makes this unlikely.
Details of curls, St. John
Detail of curls, proper right
Microphotograph of curls on proper left with grisaille underpainting exposedNica Gutman Rieppi
Nica Gutman Rieppi
Although objects seen through a crystal sphere are refracted so that they appear upside down, an effect described by Leonardo in his studies of the mechanics of vision, this only occurs when there is a certain distance between the sphere and the object. In the Salvator Mundi the sphere is held close to the body. A misunderstanding of this phenomenon was reported by the media as a mistake made by the artist, but the reversion of the image is not relevant in this case and was never intended. In its actual position, the heel of the palm part of the hand, seen through the transparent crystal, is magnified and there appears to be the double refraction to which Dr. Kemp refers. Although this passage is abraded, enough remains to understand that this effect is deliberate and not a pentimento. The drapery folds behind the orb may also have originally appeared as slightly magnified, although the effect is no longer apparent due to the abrasion of the final glazes.
It is interesting to compare Leonardo’s approach to this passage with Durer’s nearly contemporary, unfinished painting of the Salvator Mundi where there is a clear reserve for the entire passage and the hand clutches the sphere from the front rather than balancing it so that the double refraction of the palm seen through the sphere did not have to be taken into account because of the different position of the hand. (While the original position of the hand in Leonardo’s painting was originally somewhat higher, it was not as high as it is in Durer’s version.)
The three white highlights that are now isolated may have formed a reflection on the surface, as one sees in some of the copies of the painting but not all. I am not absolutely certain that are original because they do not appear in the x-radiograph, but this is presumably because the white lead preparation overwhelms these three thinly painted specks of paint. Again, the abrasion of the final scumbles and glazes interferes with this reflection. An Austrian scholar, Dr. Stefaan Missinne, has suggested that their orientation of the three dots describes the orthogonal triangle of the Southern Cross, which had only recently been discovered in the Southern hemisphere by Portughese explorers and was described in a 1503 letter from Amerigo Vespucci to Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. 39
Detail of the orb and hand
Albrrecht Durer, Salvator Mundi,
the magnification of the folds seen through the crystal sphere is apparent and must have been a feature of Leonardo’s orb before the passage was damaged
The background was originally a rich, deep black, an effect created by 4 or 5 layers, some of which are mixtures, and others of different black pigments. (See cross-sections 7 and 8.) The use of black backgrounds derives from early fifteenth-century Flemish painters, especially Jan Van Eyck but the immediate source may be Antonello da Messina who is documented in Venice in 1475-76. Antonello’s Salvator Mundi in the National Gallery in London has a cartellino with an inscription that can be variously interpreted as 1460, 1465 or 1475, but is thought to date from the 1470’s. Leonardo’s unfinished 1485 portrait of a musician in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana has a black background and is much influenced by Antonello.
Order of Painting
- Preparation of panel with a layer of animal glue and two layers of white lead, mixed with glass with a tiny amount of lead tin yellow added to the second layer.
Underdrawing. There are some indications of spolvero.
Abbozzo (underpainted sketch) with a thin wash of bone black in an aqueous medium in some areas and a warm mixture of black, vermilion, and possibly red earth bound in an oil or resin medium in others.
Probably the head and the first position of the blessing hand
The black background
The revision of the blessing hand (this could also have been done at a later stage.)
- The blue drapery
- The orb and hand