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Mystery Surrounds Anomalous Orb in Da Vinci Painting Up for Auction

One of the last known privately-owned paintings by Leonardo da Vinci is going on sale next month. Salvator Mundi, which translates to “savior of the world,” is expected to sell for about $100 million when it goes up for auction at Christie’s in New York. The portrait is believed to have been painted around the year 1500, but like other da Vinci works, details are scarce. While the fact that this is one of the last privately-owned da Vinci paintings already makes this sale unique, art dealers and historians are puzzled by what they’re calling a strange “anomaly” hidden in the painting.

da Vinci's Salvator Mundi

da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

Da Vinci has a long history of hiding strange and often cryptic messages in his paintings, including mathematical formulas and anatomical sketches. In this painting, however, the mystery lies in what da Vinci left out. Salvator Mundi is a straightforward portrait of Jesus Christ, looking straight ahead and holding a glass orb in his left hand. Curiously, however, the glass orb does not refract or reflect any light in the painting. Given how much of a detail-oriented and scientific painter da Vinci was, the “anomaly” is curious.

da Vinci painted the orb as if light passes right through it, a scientific impossibility.

da Vinci painted the orb as if light passes right through it, a scientific impossibility.

In his new da Vinci biography, Walter Isaacson says this optical “anomaly” doesn’t add up given that da Vinci was both capable of painting optical distortions and virtually obsessed with light and refraction during this point in his career:

In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision […] But Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb. Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.

Some art critics and historians claim da Vinci might have simply overlooked the detailing of the orb or perhaps left out the refractive and reflective details in order not to draw attention away from the painting’s subject. Of course, it could have also been a simple mistake, left out due to time constraints or a simple lack of interest in the painting. But who knows? Could da Vinci have been hiding some sort of cryptic message in the anomalous orb? Given how secretive the Renaissance man was, it’s not out of the realm of impossibility.