Forty Minutes with the World's Most Expensive Painting

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

A recently discovered Leonardo da Vinci painting was showcased in New York City at Christie’s auction house. "Salvator Mundi," a portrait of Christ, has an eerie resemblance to the famed "Mona Lisa."  The painting was sold at auction for $450 million on Nov. 15, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.

The person who bought it is as mysterious as the painting itself. No one knows whether the painting will ever be seen again by the public eye.

Lucky for me, I took the chance to see it before the auction.

I asked myself, “What if I let this once-in-a-lifetime painting guide my soul?” I heard of a prayer derived from the Lectio Divina called "Imago Divina." Rather than using the Bible, the prayer uses art as a spiritual guide.

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

The Christie’s showroom was dark, almost pitch black, with a single spotlight shining on Christ’s face. Two guards stood next to the painting.

I stared at the masterpiece and took in every detail: the orb in Christ’s hand, the glowing amber eyes, the smile on His face, and the spot above Jesus’ eye where da Vinci “made marks with the heel of his hand to soften the flesh,” as explained by art historian Martin Kemp.

Unlike the massive space of the Louvre that swallows the "Mona Lisa alive," and the enormous "Wedding of Cana" that leaves its shadow on the lady, the darkness and emptiness of the room drew me in. Christ was looking right at me, and everyone around me vanished into the abyss.

In his letter to the artists, St. John Paul II said, “Beauty is a key to mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.”

Da Vinci, legendary for the mysterious faces of his subjects, did not shy away from Christ’s. He painted a light source that illuminated half of Christ’s face. There was a dark shadow on the right side and a heavenly glow on the left.

“You know when you turn to the other side and you see another picture?” a stranger asked me. “I feel like he’s trying to do something like that.”

Next thing I know, the man who just as quickly appeared had left. It was common for people to walk in for a second and leave right after, which was a tremendous shame. There was so much to see in da Vinci’s masterful accumulation of a thousand brushstrokes.

I realized that I hadn’t moved an inch since I arrived.

I shifted myself to the side of the painting where Christ’s face was covered by the shadow. The stranger was right: I saw another image. Christ was no longer smiling. He had a sorrowful tilt to his lips. Reflecting on this, I came to realize the beauty of Christ carrying the sins of humanity. He may be the Light of the World, but every light needs its shadow, and Christ’s shadow is our sin.

The person who bought it is as mysterious as the painting itself. No one knows whether the painting will ever be seen again by the public eye.

When I moved back to the other side of the painting, Christ was glowing and gleaming with humble joy. And when I moved to look at the painting head on from the center, the image of Jesus was staring at me with such a formidable composure that I took a step back in awe of the beauty of God’s power.

This painting is beautiful. I’m not saying that it’s beautiful because of how it touched my faith, but because it possessed the ability to touch my faith. Art has the power to bridge the senses to the soul, but we’re too busy trying to stimulate our senses that we forget to stimulate our soul with the beauty that the created world has given us.

This painting may not be God, but it brought the idea of Him alive.

The image of God is in the handwork of da Vinci: as God was creator, so was da Vinci. God creates beauty, and beauty is good.

The Greeks created the word “kalokagathia,” translated as “beauty-goodness,” to describe the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Art is the bridge between the two.

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski

Our culture struggles to understand this like the men of the Renaissance did. There is so much beauty that we no longer value the greatness of it. Social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, doesn’t help us when we are constantly bombarded by visual imagery that we can’t escape. We are overwhelmed and desensitized.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned,” da Vinci said.

When we let our attention span move from one place to another at an alarming rate, we begin to abandon art. Our distractions lead us away from beauty, away from good, and away from ourselves.

It took me 40 minutes to stop and analyze the splendor of "Salvator Mundi." Witnessing this historic art piece’s (potentially) only public viewing during my lifetime let me see the beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s work no one sees from standing on their tiptoes, peering over a tour group surrounding the Crown Jewel of the Louvre.

That day it was just me, da Vinci, and Christ in a room. I always admired art but I never stopped and let it transform me. Beauty is out there, and it can do amazing things to your soul, but we must take time out of the day to look at it. Let’s stop being a culture centered on the shallow beauty of the outside. Let’s begin to appreciate beauty for what it is: good.