The Whole World in His Hands

What a digital restoration of the most expensive painting ever sold tells us about beauty, authenticity, and the fragility of existence

The <em>Salvator Mundi</em> in its damaged state—cleaned but not yet restored (Wikimedia Commons)
The Salvator Mundi in its damaged state—cleaned but not yet restored (Wikimedia Commons)

I got the call late on a summer afternoon. Yanai Segal, an artist I’ve known for years, asked me whether I’d heard of the Salvator Mundi—the painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that was lost for more than two centuries before resurfacing in New Orleans in 2005. I told him that I’d heard something of the story but that I didn’t remember the details. He had recently undertaken a project related to the painting, he said, and wanted to tell me about it. I was eager to hear more, but first I needed to remind myself of the basic facts. We agreed to speak again soon.

As I refreshed my memory in the following days, I learned that although there was considerable controversy about the history and legitimacy of the painting, there was some general consensus, too. The Salvator Mundi—“Savior of the World”—was most likely completed at the turn of the 16th century. An oil painting rendered on a walnut panel, it depicts Jesus offering a blessing with his right hand while holding an orb that represents Earth with his left. Studies made in preparation for the painting had been authenticated as genuine Leonardos, and at least 30 copies were believed to have been produced by Leonardo’s disciples directly from the original. Records show that the painting was in the collections of various British aristocrats and royals, including King Charles I, but sometime at the end of the 18th century, it effectively disappeared. When the work turned up at a New Orleans estate sale in 2005—heavily damaged, poorly restored, and painted over in several places—two veteran art dealers, Robert Simon and Alexander Parish, thought it might be significant and purchased it for around $10,000. They hired Dianne Modestini, a scholar and master art restorer, to clear away the restorations and repairs that the painting had undergone over the centuries to produce a definitive version. What emerged was an artwork that some experts believed to be the genuine Salvator Mundi. Others were not convinced.

Beginning in November 2011, the restored painting was displayed as part of a large exhibition of Leonardo’s works at London’s National Gallery, which had authenticated the painting. In 2013, it sold for about $80 million in a brokered deal that saw it resold the following day for $127.5 million. In 2017, it went up for auction again, this time selling for more than $450 million—the highest price ever paid for a work of art—to an unknown bidder who turned out to be a Saudi prince reportedly acting as a proxy for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The work was supposed to be part of a landmark 2019 exhibition at the Louvre commemorating the 500th death anniversary of Leonardo, but the painting never went on display, the reasons for its exclusion never made public. And though scientific examinations done by the museum had confirmed that the painting was genuine (at least according to a secret book prepared, but never published, by the Louvre), questions about its authenticity have lingered. The entire saga of the painting’s travails through the contemporary worlds of art, wealth, and politics was traced in the 2021 documentary The Lost Leonardo, which portrayed how the superrich are able to hide their wealth in the form of high-end art.

I was surprised that so many discussions of the painting had focused more on these financial aspects, and the controversial nature of how it changed hands, than they did on aesthetics. To me, the bigger question was whether this artwork had the effect of a Leonardo. And when I looked at an image of the restored painting, I could not be sure. I saw a hint of the master before me, but something seemed to be missing.

I was curious about the kind of project Yanai had undertaken. His efforts lay mainly in the realm of contemporary art, which he usually exhibited in large-scale installations. He had studied academic drawing as a teenager and then visual art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was a founding member and curator of the Barbur Gallery, a collective art space that has hosted both local and international artists since 2005, and has worked as an illustrator and a designer, creating everything from animated videos to children’s books. His studio, which I’d visited regularly over the years, was full of large-scale abstract paintings and conceptual sculptures made of such materials as hand-mixed concrete and Styrofoam. But there were often small oil paintings, too, scattered around, many of them still lifes of flowers. For as long as I’ve known him, Yanai has investigated the tension between figurative and abstract art, combining 20th-century modernist patterns with a contemporary aesthetic language. I had never known him to take an interest in the work of the Old Masters.

When I asked Yanai about his project, he told me that he had come across two images of the Salvator Mundi—the restored version that the world had come to know and an earlier, damaged iteration, with many of the original artist’s brushstrokes still visible. Wondering if a digital restoration would yield a different result, he decided to draw on his many years of computer experience and attempt to restore the painting himself. He had accomplished a great deal, he said, and though he wasn’t yet done, he sensed that his work might provide a clearer view of the artist’s original vision.

When I saw a photo of the damaged Salvator Mundi, I had an immediate idea of what had inspired Yanai. Looking at the half-tattered canvas, with the figure of Jesus bearing a haunting expression, I experienced an emotional reaction that had been absent when I’d seen an image of the physically restored version. Although I was not sure whether a digital restoration could be called legitimate, I was curious whether the emotion of the original—which, to me, was missing in the physical restoration—could be better captured using digital means. If so, it would raise a whole new set of questions about the painting and its authorship. When Yanai invited me to his studio in Tel Aviv to see the work in progress, I told him that I’d be there in a couple of days.

The Salvator Mundi in its damaged state—cleaned but not yet restored (Wikimedia Commons)

I got on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on a hot July afternoon. When I arrived at Yanai’s studio, he made me a cup of strong black coffee, sat me down in a chair, and opened up a laptop, revealing an image of a half-restored Salvator Mundi. This was nothing like the painting that was famous the world over. This one had more gravitas, more power. It had the kind of arresting presence I associated with Leonardo.

Yanai began to explain to me how he had performed his restoration. With extremely close-up zooms into a photograph of the damaged original, he was able to pick up pixel-resolution pigment traces adjacent to the damaged areas. Whereas a typical art restorer would, at this point, add new pigments to the painting, Yanai used digital impressions of the surviving work to fill in the missing sections. He looked at images of every known copy of the Salvator Mundi to determine what might have been on the original walnut panel. He constantly zoomed in and out, looking at the overall image, then going back in to fill in the pixels, watching as, step by step, a new version of the painting emerged.

I thought Yanai had a powerful image on his hands, and I asked him to tell me more about how the project came into being. He shrugged and said it was sort of by accident. During the pandemic, he began listening to podcasts while working on illustrations and book covers. One of those podcasts was about the Salvator Mundi. Intrigued, he searched for the painting online and came upon the image of the damaged work. It moved him. It was totally ruined, he said, but really like gazing at a figure behind a beaded curtain. If he could just reach out and move the curtain, he said, he could see what lay behind. He’d never attempted anything like a digital restoration of a painting, but the idea stayed with him. It wouldn’t leave him alone.

Yanai did a preliminary test, and the result turned out better than he’d imagined. It didn’t look like an artwork yet, but slowly he could see a new version of the painting appearing on the screen. As I looked at the image he had created, something about it tapped into a deep emotional well in me. Sure, the physical restoration had been historically researched. It had material integrity, dutifully bringing back to an optimal state a painting that had been badly damaged and inexpertly conserved over the centuries. I also understood that the motivation of the restorer was different: to preserve a physical object that could later be sold at auction. But for me, that object lacked feeling. And no matter how many times it was—or wasn’t—attributed to Leonardo, it could never be a legitimate Leonardo if it didn’t also have emotional force. It could be a Leonardo painting, but not a Leonardo artwork.

Yanai was heartened by my response, but he was still concerned about the significance of his undertaking—in particular, how it related to the ongoing debate about the physically restored painting. He was also wary of the fine line between the project of re-creating an image by Leonardo and the possibility of its being seen as an artwork of his own. He was not invested, he said, in creating a Yanai original. He was pursuing a vision that squarely belonged to Leonardo. But he couldn’t totally take himself out of the equation, either. Which left him with a lot of questions.

Still, he said, the project had become a compulsion. He’d sit down to create an illustration or design a book cover, feel compelled to take a quick look at the Leonardo, and then end up working on the restoration for hours. His initial aim had been to fill in the missing sections using information gleaned from the damaged original. Once he took this as far as it would go, however, he saw that some areas lacked sufficient data for him to finish the painting using simple digital deduction. In those sections, he explained, he had to think like an artist and re-create the missing areas in accordance with what he believed Leonardo might have intended. He was no longer fixing a painting, he said, but working on an interpolation. It was hard to move into this space, and that was why he’d stopped. He was looking to get some perspective on the project as it stood.

Yanai asked what I thought about his restored version so far. I told him the truth. That I didn’t quite know yet what to make of it, and that I needed to think some more. Since he was only half done, it was hard to make any final judgment. All I could say was that his version felt closer to what might have been the original. We agreed that I’d return once he’d worked on it some more. And I repeated that the main issue, for me, was the emotional element—there was something uncanny about the damaged painting that was missing from the physical restoration, something that seemed better preserved in Yanai’s image.

The Salvator Mundi after the restoration performed by Dianne Modestini. Although experts at the Louvre authenticated the restoration as a genuine Leonardo, questions about its authenticity remain. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the train ride home, I began to reflect on some questions that had been on my mind since Yanai first told me about his project—for reasons that had nothing to do with him or the Salvator Mundi. A decade earlier, during a trip to Paris, I had met a retired-businessman-turned-philosopher named Hervé Le Baut. I had been seeking information on the life of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of France’s foremost philosophers in the period after World War II. Merleau-Ponty had been a close friend and colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who all together founded Le Temps modernes, one of the best-known postwar journals. In the early 1950s, not long after Albert Camus’s falling-out with Sartre over their political differences, Merleau-Ponty also cut ties with Sartre. Researching any direct links between Camus and Merleau-Ponty, I had sought out Le Baut, who had written a book on the French philosopher. When we met at his home, Le Baut said he knew little of Merleau-Ponty’s connection with Camus, but he then revealed to me something that was common knowledge to people with an interest in Beauvoir but was mostly unknown to everyone else. It was a story of legitimacy.

The story appears in Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), in which she describes the death, nearly 30 years before, of her beloved friend Zaza, who, she reports, died after being spurned by a man named in the book as Jean Pradelle. In reality, this man was Merleau-Ponty. What Beauvoir didn’t know—and what she learned from Zaza’s sister only after her memoir was published—was that Merleau-Ponty had turned Zaza away for the simple reason that her parents, who’d hired a detective to look into his family’s past, had discovered that he was an illegitimate child. They told him to either halt his pursuit of Zaza or be publicly exposed. And so he ended the relationship. Zaza died not long after the breakup. Zaza’s sister supposedly showed Beauvoir letters suggesting that Zaza herself knew of the whole debacle—that the tragedy had indeed been fatal to her, killing her first in spirit and then in body.

Merleau-Ponty would have been 21 when this took place and seemingly hadn’t known of his own illegitimacy before it was revealed to him by Zaza’s family. It’s chilling to think of how he learned of his provenance, from people who were hardly more than strangers, crushing not only his love for his fiancée and his plans for the future but also his entire understanding of his own past. The moment was powerful and deeply traumatic, and perhaps that’s why, years later, sitting down to write an essay on Paul Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty found himself veering into the personal history of Leonardo—one of the most famous illegitimate children of all time.

As soon as I got home, I reread “Cézanne’s Doubt.” Merleau-Ponty first raises the matter of Leonardo’s illegitimacy as part of an argument about the relationship between childhood and adulthood—between the powerful feeling that our lives are determined by our births and the similarly powerful feeling that we can determine our future by our actions. And though the argument is first built on Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty makes a sudden pivot, referencing Sigmund Freud’s book on Leonardo and refocusing his discussion on one of the only times Leonardo ever mentioned his childhood: when he described the memory of a vulture coming to him in the cradle and striking him on the mouth with its tail. With this sleight of hand, Merleau-Ponty turns an essay ostensibly about the role of doubt in creativity into a meditation on origins—in this case, the origins of arguably the greatest master of all time.

Continuing to lean on Freud, Merleau-Ponty reminds us that Leonardo “was the illegitimate son of a rich notary who married the noble Donna Albiera the very year Leonardo was born. Having no children by her, he took Leonardo into his home when the boy was five”—the same age when Merleau-Ponty experienced the death of the man he thought was his father. Merleau-Ponty then adds, in a tone that takes on a subtle lyricism, that Leonardo “was a child without a father” and that “he got to know the world in the sole company of that unhappy mother who seemed to have miraculously created him.”

Those lines changed how I read Merleau-Ponty’s essay. When he writes about Leonardo’s “basic attachment” to his mother, “which he had to give up when he was recalled to his father’s home, and into which he had poured all his resources of love and all his power of abandon,” I imagined Merleau-Ponty refracting his own attachment to his mother through the Renaissance artist. When he later writes that Leonardo’s “spirit of investigation was a way for him to escape from life, as if he had invested all his power of assent in the first years of his life and had remained true to his childhood right to the end,” Merleau-Ponty seems to be mirroring his own sense of curiosity and wonder as a thinker. Elsewhere, when he writes that Leonardo “paid no heed to authority and trusted only nature and his own judgment in matters of knowledge,” I couldn’t help but think of Merleau-Ponty reflecting on his own moment of truth—when he discovered his illegitimate origins and, still young and insecure, succumbed to the social pressures exerted on him. He is writing about Leonardo, but he could well be writing about himself.

I was curious about the source of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on Leonardo, so I turned to Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood. “In the first three or four years of life,” writes Freud, “impressions are fixed and modes of reactions are formed towards the outer world which can never be robbed of their importance by any later experiences.” The impression that Leonardo would have had of himself as a fatherless child would have likely haunted him throughout his life. And, it occurred to me all at once, his circumstances would also have helped him identify with the most famous of “fatherless” boys—Jesus.

And that’s when it all came together. What better way to create an everlasting emblem of your most consequential childhood impression than to paint yourself as the Salvator Mundi—the savior of the world? What could be more audacious than to turn your illegitimacy into one of the most powerful religious symbols ever created?

It wasn’t a totally wild idea. Lillian Schwartz, a visual artist working with digital media since the 1960s, had made a claim back in 1987 that the Mona Lisa was a self-portrait of Leonardo. But it was one thing to turn yourself into a woman, and quite another to paint Christ in your own image. It took Leonardo’s penchant for games and riddles into the realm of blasphemy. Yet on another level, it was also a simple and perfect way to expose something about yourself that was otherwise difficult to address—to get an emotion across without having to identify the emotion itself. Merleau-Ponty, writing about Leonardo, had done the same thing. He had told his personal story through a figure so grand that no one had ever guessed he might have been talking about himself. He had done to Leonardo what Leonardo had done to Jesus.

I was tempted to call up Yanai and tell him about my hypothesis. But I realized that he first had to complete his image without knowing of my thought experiment. Then, once it was done, I could put his Salvator Mundi next to other portraits of Leonardo—and compare.

Yanai Segal’s digital restoration of the painting believed to be Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (Yanai Segal)

Six months passed. It was a busy time—a new coronavirus variant was rampant, and obligations ballooned. I seemed unable to catch up with anything. By the time I talked to Yanai about his project again, he told me that he had gone as far as he could with the image. Finally, in early winter, I found a moment to visit him again at his studio. As we settled into our chairs and he reached for his laptop, I sensed that I was sitting next to a changed person. He hadn’t just stopped work on the digital restoration. He’d come to some sort of understanding.

Yanai opened his laptop and revealed the image. I was struck by how final it looked. I still had the damaged painting in mind, with its haunting rips and scratches, and it was somewhat jarring to see the apparent magic trick that Yanai had performed—as if he’d resurrected the original image. The digital process he’d used had evolved during those months. At some point, he thought he had finished, but the image had looked too smooth, too new, lacking any of the mystique or allure of a 500-year-old painting. The damaged work, he said, gives you a mental image that’s difficult to unsee. It has a kind of fuzziness, a softness around the eyes and face, from all of the scratches and erasures. He realized that to restore the image properly, he also had to preserve the damage it had suffered over the centuries. So he removed the most recent layer altogether and started putting the painting back piece by piece. Many of the sections he thought he’d “fixed,” he said, had turned from interpolations into interpretations, so that, slowly, the painting had also become his, which had never been his intention. Having fully restored the image, he began scaling back his work—but this time with the knowledge and experience of having examined every single pixel and pigment. He stopped “fixing” the painting and started reclaiming the parts that were lost. And as he did, he discovered that the sections that looked “lost” were not lost at all. They just needed a little push to make them more clearly visible.

I asked Yanai what he made of his effort, and he said it was hard to say what it was all about. It wasn’t just about the methodology of digitally restoring the painting, though he had invested a great deal of time in that, and it wasn’t just about satisfying his curiosity about what such a restoration might look like, though that was also a part of the story. It also wasn’t about putting his own mark on a Leonardo, as Marcel Duchamp had done when he famously added a mustache to the Mona Lisa in a 1919 print. Whatever Yanai had done, its meaning was somewhere at the crossroads of these things, though it was also about the painting itself. The digital restoration, Yanai said, brings us closer to the original. In the middle of the process, as he became intimate with its every corner, its every color and texture, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the painting had also become his own. Now, at the end, he no longer saw himself in the process. When he looked at the painting, what he saw was a contemporary artwork—a representation of all humanity holding a fragile world in his hands. It’s a beautiful image, he said. People had been so busy talking about its authenticity that they had missed this essential aspect of the painting.

In the end, he said, had he known the road he’d need to take to arrive at this point, he wasn’t sure he would have started. He likened the whole process to standing at a chasm with only enough raw material to build a bridge halfway across. You start building and get to the middle, but then you have to take the bridge you’ve built, while suspended in midair, and use the same raw material to build the second half. Then, having reached the other side, you have to build the bridge again in the opposite direction to get as close as possible back to the original.

All other matters aside, I asked, had the experience given him any new insights about himself as an artist? He chuckled and said that it had actually reconnected him with his roots. He’d gone back to his old notebooks, to the drawings he’d done as a teenager when first starting to paint, and found copies he’d made of Leonardo’s drawings. He pulled a few of these out to show me, and I recognized one image at once—the head of an old man believed to be a self-portrait. It felt like a sign. I finally shared with him my own thoughts about Leonardo and the possibility that the Salvator Mundi was also a portrait of the artist.

I suggested we put his final image next to images that were believed to be portraits of Leonardo—including the drawing he had copied as a teenager. He opened some tabs up on his computer. It was hard not to be moved. The sharp nose. The penetrating eyes. The delicate eyebrows. The unique curve of the mouth. Even a split beard. It was uncanny. It was all there. It was, without a doubt, Leonardo.

I cannot overstate the power of the moment. The symbolism of the painting disappeared, and I saw before me a person all too aware of the fragility of the world in which he lived and from which, unlike the immortal figure in his painting, he would one day have to depart.

I looked over at Yanai, who had given years of his own life to resurrecting the dead, and had another thought. If Leonardo painting Jesus was really Leonardo painting himself, and Merleau-Ponty writing about Leonardo was in reality Merleau-Ponty writing about himself, was it possible that Yanai’s restoration of the Salvator Mundi was in reality Yanai’s restoration of himself? Perhaps. But Leonardo had also painted Jesus, and Merleau-Ponty had also written about Leonardo, and Yanai had, regardless of anything else, also restored the Salvator Mundi—endowing it once again with the most important element lost along the way, something that could never be reproduced by technical means alone. Emotion.

Learn more about Yanai Segal’s digital restoration project here.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up