Last week an art auction witnessed the record-breaking purchase of $450 million for a painting by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. The painting is called "Salvator Mundi" (Savior of the World) and depicts Jesus in a kind of traditional posture of blessing but with a subtle and enigmatic expression that only Leonardo could capture (think Mona Lisa’s smile).
There are fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo in existence, which makes each one a valuable artifact and a valuable investment. "Salvator Mundi" is also unique in that it is the only known painting by Leonardo held in a private collection.
The painting once belonged to the royal house of England but changed hands over the centuries. It was presumed lost but turned up in the possession of a British collector in the 20th century. By this point it had been badly damaged through additions and poor restoration work. The collector’s descendants sold the painting for 45£ in 1958.
The damage done to the painting over the years called into question whether or not it was actually an authentic Leonardo. Extensive professional restoration satisfied art critics enough to verify the painting’s provenance, however, so the investment was able to appreciate into an amount the New Yorker called worthy of a next generation bomber. It lends perspective on the old hymn, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.”
Commentators have been both awed and appalled at the price of the painting. The amount is record-shattering by any standard, but especially for a work that is not considered to be Leonardo’s best. Some pillory the excess of people with too much money. (For frame of reference, the dollar amount is roughly the same as median household income for 7,600 American families.) Others point out that it was once a sign of status to shrink private art collections in the spirit of noblesse oblige and endow public museums rather than shield art from public view in private holdings. The amount of the painting suggests that it should be available to all, they say.
In my estimation, however, the painting sold for the right price.
The Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), which certainly underscores Jesus’ singularity. A glimpse of the invisible God is a rare, wonderful and precious thing.
God throws a wrench in the whole enterprise, however, by creating everyone this way. In fact, from the very first page of the Bible, we know we are special — created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
This means that everyone we know — our parents, children, husbands, wives, friends, neighbors — are made in the image of God. All are priceless; or, as Paul put it, bought with a price (1 Corinthians 1:19) by someone whose image just sold for $450 million.
But it’s not just people we know. Everyone is of immeasurable value to God. This includes your co-workers and customers. It includes the other people in your community who you don’t know and might never see. It includes someone on the other side of the world or the person so close he just cut you off in traffic. It includes the person whose social media feed drives you crazy.
What would the world look like if everyone were treated as they would be by God? How would politicians and serial abusers and anonymous internet commenters behave if they knew how much every human life was really worth? The going rate is $450 million.
A promotional video from Christie’s, the auction house for the painting, didn’t actually show the masterpiece. Maybe they realized what was truly priceless. Instead, they promoted the sale by showing glimpses of faces viewing the painting. Some stand in rapt attention, mouths open in wonder. Others chuckle or can’t contain their excitement. Some furrow their brows in concentration. Others weep.
In the video you see ordinary people and celebrities. You see men and women, young and old, people of all races, looking back at a picture that might as well be a mirror. But you never see the painting itself — only the face of God drawn by the creator who made them. The picture is worth a thousand (times 450,000) dollars.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears on the fourth Saturday of the month.