2023 Leconfield Lecture. LEONARDO’S SALVATOR MUNDI: LET’S ACTUALLY LOOK AT THE PICTURE, a talk by Prof Martin Kemp

Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi: Let’s Look at the Actual Picture
The “Salvator” is intensely subject to the “Mona Lisa Effect”. That is to say, the image is so hedged around by stories, legends and misconceptions that it is almost impossible to look at it for what it actually is as a functioning visual image in its cultural context. It took Mona Lisa five centuries to reach this impasse. The Salvator has achieved this state in about a decade, courtesy of modern media, the internet, a hunger for sensation, the self-promotional bombast of the art market, and the politics of big finance and collecting. My purpose will be to reinstate a measured analysis of how the painting works as a devotional image in overall effect and in incredibly subtle details that rework how the genre of the image of a frontal Christ makes it effect, formally, iconographically and theologically (yes, theologically). This will take us on a journey from painting technique and Islamic optics to mediaeval cosmology and what Leonardo called the “sacred books” . Unless something momentous happens, I will not be reporting where it is.

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College. Oxford University. He was trained in Natural Sciences and Art History at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute, London. His books include, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale), and The Human Animal in Western Art and Science (Chicago). He has published and broadcast extensively on Leonardo da Vinci, including the prize-winning Leonardo da Vinci. The marvellous works of nature and man, and Leonardo (both Oxford). His Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (Oxford) looks at 11 representatives of types of icons across a wide range of public imagery. He wrote regularly for Nature, his essays for which have been published as Visualizations and developed in Seen and Unseen (both Oxford) in which his concept of “structural intuitions” is explored. More recently he has published Art in History (Profile Books and Structural Intuitions: Seeing Shapes in Art and Science (Virginia). New books are Heavenly Visions: Dante and the Art of Divine Light’, and Hockney’s Eye, a volume of essays for the 2022 exhibition in Cambridge. He has been a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, The Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum. He has curated and co-curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, including Spectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 and Seduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery London, 2007.  He is now full-time speaking, writing and broadcasting.




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November 2023