For a biography of Hans Memling, see the Catalogue Entry for The Annunciation
The strict frontality of Christ asserts the aura of the renowned Vera Icon
, or “true image”. This formal presentation, however, is mitigated by the close-up view, set before a familiar landscape, which affirms the physical presence of a living being. Christ blesses the devotee with his right hand and rests his left hand on a cross-topped globe, thus representing the Salvator Mundi or Savior of the World.
The source for the official physiognomy of Christ is the Sudarium relic or Vera Icon
, the cloth that miraculously received the image of Christ when Veronica (a legendary saint whose name perhaps was composed of the words “vera icon”) wiped his face as he labored under the weight of the cross on his way to Calvary for his crucifixion. The cloth relic, housed in Saint Peter’s Church in Rome until it was lost during the sack of Rome in 1527, was first described by Gervasius of Tidbury in the Otia Imperialia
(vol. III, 25) of 1210–15. Matthew Paris, a monk of the Abbey of Saint Albans, subsequently produced a byzantinizying image of Christ in a manuscript of about 1245, relating the eventful procession of the relic in Rome in 1216. Through such images, the characteristics of Christ’s appearance were established: a frontal, shoulder-length view of the figure, a passive expression, and often a tri-partite nimbus, all presented within a frame, like a portrait. A splendid example in The Met’s collection of Veronica’s veil, held aloft by two angels, is by the Master of the Orcagnesque Misericordia, a Florentine painter from the second half of the fourteenth century (1981.365.2
The popularity of this type flourished in the fourteenth century, due to the so-called Lentulus Letter. As mentioned by Anselm of Canterbury in the early thirteenth century, the letter, purportedly sent to the Roman Senate by a certain Publius Lentulus, describes Christ’s appearance allegedly from first-hand experience. The description focuses in particular on the central part of Christ’s hair, his smooth, unblemished face, and his short, forked beard. Although apocryphal, the Lentulus Letter was believed at the time to be authentic, and generated a number of images of which Jan van Eyck’s Head of Christ
was the most famous. The Van Eyck original is lost, but known through several copies of which the one in Berlin is thought to be the most faithful (see fig. 1 above). A devotion to the Vera Icon
was endorsed by two popes—Innocent IV (r. 1243–54) and John XXII (r. 1316–34)—who instituted indulgences for those who would recite the associated Salve sancta facies
(Hail holy face) prayer.
The Met’s Salvator Mundi
is a conflation of the Vera Icon
or Holy Face and Christ as Savior of the World. Toward the end of the fifteenth century in the Netherlands, the popularity of the Holy Face was superseded by a devotion to Christ as Salvator Mundi. That the Salvator Mundi image was still connected to the Salve sancta facies
prayer, and thus served the purpose of indulgenced images, is indicated by the direct connection of the Salvator Mundi with the prayer in Books of Hours. An example of this is the Lehman Collection Salvator Mundi
by Gerard David (1975.1.2486
) that once accompanied the Salve sancta facies
prayer in the opening devotion of the Escorial Hours of 1486. It is likely, then, that the function of the Salvator Mundi
under discussion here was related to the Salve sancta facies
prayer and possible indulgences to be rewarded to those who prayed before it.The Attribution and Date:
In 1906, Max J. Friedländer, subsequently supported by other scholars, attributed the Salvator Mundi to Memling himself (see Refs.). However, closer comparison with autograph works by the master demonstrates that it is by a workshop assistant who closely followed a standard pattern, perhaps from a lost original (De Vos 1994 and Refs.). As Memling worked for a time in Rogier van der Weyden’s Brussels atelier, it is not surprising to discover that The Met’s Christ type derives from one in the central panel of Rogier van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych
in the Louvre (fig. 2; see Held 1949). In both paintings, Christ holds in his left hand a globe that represents the earth, topped by a cross, and raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing. In Rogier’s image, the globe very clearly shows the reflection of light pouring through a window, a common symbol in Salvator Mundi images. The window references redemption through the light of Christ (often in such images, the bars of the window form the shape of a cross). In The Met’s painting, the reflection of light on the globe comes from the same direction as in Rogier’s prototype, but without the appearance of a window (Gottlieb 1960).
Memling himself produced several paintings related to this work, most notably the Christ Blessing
of 1478 in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena (fig. 3), and one from 1481 in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 4). Also from 1480–85 is a recently discovered Christ Blessing
now in the collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick (fig. 5). Memling painted a far more elaborately attired Salvator Mundi as the central figure of his Nájera Altarpiece
of about 1487–90 in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, and as a figure in the triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation
of 1485 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg). The close proximity of the figure of Christ in The Met’s roundel especially with those of Christ Blessing
in Pasadena, Boston, and the private collection in California suggests a similar date, that is, around 1480–85. These comparisons also underscore the more subtle and lifelike modeling of the head of Christ of the former three compared to The Met painting, which appears stiff and wooden. The underdrawing of The Met's painting is restricted mostly to the contours of the figure, with minor adjustments made to Christ’s left shoulder and right thumb (see Technical Notes and fig. 6). This careful but rather rigid-looking underdrawing is typical of copies from an established workshop pattern. There is no apparent underdrawing in the landscape, the details of which are mechanically executed in paint and appear unnaturalistic in comparison with the idyllic landscape behind Memling’s Virgin and Child
roundel of around 1475–80 (The Met, 32.100.59
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2019
 For Saint Veronica and the veil, see A. Sand, Vision, Devotion, and Self-representation in Late Medieval Art
, New York, 2014, pp. 31–32; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend
, trans. and adapt. G. Ryan and H. Rippergere, 2 vols., New York, 1969, pp. 214–15; Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art
, Chicago, 1994, pp. 218–20. For other earlier legends of the Vera Icon
see Ewa Kuryluk, Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism, and Structure of a “True” Image
, Cambridge, Mass., 1991; and Miyako Sugiyama, “Replicating the Sanctity of the Holy Face: Jan van Eyck’s Head of Christ,” Simiolus
30 (2017), no. 1–2, pp. 7–8.
 Ernst von Dobschütz, Christusbilder Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende
, Leipzig, 1899, p. 92.
 Matthew Paris, Matthaei Parisiensis, Monachi Sancti Albani. Chronica majora
, ed. H. Luard, 7 vols., London, 1876, vol. 3, p. 7. See also Sugiyama 2017, p. 8.
 For the text of the letter, see Sugiyama 2017, p. 9.
 On the Van Eyck copies as indulgenced images and used to enact mental pilgrimages to Rome to the Vera Icon itself, see Sugiyama 2017, pp. 9–14.
 For two German Renaissance paintings in The Met’s collection of the Salvator Mundi, see those by Albrecht Dürer (32.100.64
) and a German Painter (probably from Hamburg; 17.190.13–15
 Maryan Ainsworth and Thomas Kren in Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe
, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2003, p. 346, no. 99.
 See Ainsworth and Kren 2003 and The Met, 1975.1.2486
 Till-Holger Borchert, “Een Zegenende Christus van Hans Memling,” in Anne Adriaens-Pannier et al., Hommage: Robert Hoozee: Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Gent, 1982–2012
, Ghent, 2014, p. 95; Till-Holger Borchert, ed., Memling Rinascimento fiammingo
, exh. cat. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, 2014, pp. 138–39, no. 17.
 An unusual feature in the Salvator Mundi
is the parallel hatching in a deep red glaze in the red robe of Christ to indicate modeling. To my knowledge, this is rarely found in Memling’s autograph paintings, and only in the ones that are dated toward the end of Memling’s career. Compare a similar phenomenon in the red curtain sack of the bed in Memling’s Annunciation (The Met, 1975.1.113