On 16 November 2017, the world held its breath and then celebrated, as it always does, that so much money could be paid for a single painting. The painting was Salvator Mundi — ‘The Saviour of the World’ — attributed to the great renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci.
I say attributed, because there is no definite proof that Leonardo painted this picture, and the experts are still divided.
But, all the same, it seemed the whole world held its breath that day and wondered how much it would be sold for; and, as usual, held its breath for the wrong reasons and celebrated the wrong thing.
Although the painting was all about Jesus, the world altogether missed what the gospel is about. The occasion was rather like Jesus’ description of the people’s response to John the Baptist: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see?’ (Matthew 11:7-9).
John was a prophet, the greatest prophet of all time, as he pointed people to Christ. But they couldn’t see it, just as the art experts and the public couldn’t see what this wonderful painting is about.
The painting’s history is important. Apparently, it belonged to King Charles I of England in the 1600s and hung in a royal palace as part of his collection, but then got lost. In the same way, the true Saviour of the world, who once lived in the royal place of heaven’s glory, ‘made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself’.
Jesus came as a man and, like Leonardo’s painting, the most valuable thing on earth got ‘lost’: born in a stable, living among men, unrecognisable for who he truly was, working as a tradesman. And, all the while, nobody knew that he was Salvator Mundi, the Saviour of the world.
The real Jesus
But this exquisitely drawn masterpiece of a handsome man with beautiful hair is just a romantic’s view of Jesus. The real Jesus, Isaiah tells us, had ‘no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2).
For 400 years, the painting was lost; worse, it was over-painted. Generations of artists thought they could improve on Leonardo’s work, so took up their brush and added bits here and there, until the original underneath was unrecognisable.
In the same way, large sections of the church did the same thing. Over the centuries it added its own ideas about Christ. It over-painted the gospel; it thought that new was better and ‘improved’ on it, until the real Jesus became obscured and unrecognisable.
But last year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — the rediscovery of the true Christ — and we must thank Luther and his contemporaries for a superb ‘restoration job’ on the gospel!
The Salvator Mundi is the most valuable painting in the world to date. In 1958, it was sold at auction in London in for a mere £45. Even so, the true Saviour of the world was sold for just 30 pieces of silver. He was mocked, spat upon, ridiculed and beaten, and then hung up for all the world to see on a cross (no sumptuous picture gallery for him!).
For Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi the successful bidder, who chose to remain anonymous, paid a staggering $450 million dollars. Christie’s, the auction house that sold it, billed it as ‘the greatest artistic rediscovery of the twentieth century’. Georgina Adam, an art market specialist, said, ‘This is the last Leonardo painting you can buy. It’s the ultimate trophy; only one person in the world can own this’.
In the same way, Jesus Christ is the only true Saviour of the world. He said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’. The apostle Peter declared, ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’.
And though only one person can ever own that painting, Christ has come for all, and invites us all to come to him for salvation and forgiveness of our sin. He has come that we may have life and have it more abundantly. ‘I am the bread of life’, Jesus said. ‘He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst … Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life’.
I shared these verses from John’s Gospel recently with a man who has nothing and who, in a moment, became the richest man on earth, as he himself received the Saviour of the world.
Jesus is the ultimate possession, but you can’t buy him or buy salvation. It is God’s free gift to all who will receive and believe on Christ. And if you have come to Christ as your Saviour and own him as your matchless king, then please don’t remain an ‘anonymous’ Christian.
Tell the world that Christ is yours and treasure him as your most valuable possession, for all the world to see!
Jonathan Gravil is pastor Lincoln Evangelical Church