Botticelli portrait of Jesus Christ sells for $45.4 million

A Sandro Botticelli portrait of Jesus Christ with bloodshot eyes and a halo of tiny, weeping angels sold for $45.4 million on Thursday in the latest sign of the art market’s resilience.

Sotheby’s in New York expected “The Man of Sorrows,” from around 1500, to sell for $40 million. Two phone bidders wound up competing for the work, with the auctioneer hammering the gavel at $39.3 million for a final sale price of $45.4 million including Sotheby’s commission.

Man of Sorrows

A view of Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Man of Sorrows’ as Sotheby’s January 2022 Masters Week Auctions Sandro Botticelli Masterpiece at Sotheby’s on January 21, 2022 in New York City.  (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images / Getty Images)

The sale kicked off the art world’s spring season, continuing a hot streak that started last year as the world’s chief auction houses bounced back from the global pandemic with help from an influx of collectors eager for art trophies by household names.

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Botticelli was a High Renaissance man from Florence who lived from 1445 to 1510 under the lush patronage of the Medici family, as well as the ascetic preaching of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. His oeuvre reflects this aesthetic pendulum. Botticelli, a nickname that means “little barrel,” is best known for earlier, mythological scenes of goddesses in billowy gowns or perched nude atop seashells, as in “The Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” both at the Uffizi Gallery.

His 1480 portrait of a “Young Man Holding a Roundel” caught attention more recently when Sotheby’s sold it for $92.2 million a year ago.

Young Man Holding a Roundel Botticelli

A Sotheby’s employee wearing a face mask poses for a photograph with the artwork “Young Man Holding a Roundel” by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, during a photocall at Sotheby’s auctioneers in London on December 2, 2020.  (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

“The Man of Sorrows” reminds art lovers that the same artist later fell under the influence of Savonarola, whose rise and four-year dictatorship in Florence in the late 1400s cast a long shadow on the superstar artists working there at the time, including Botticelli and younger artists Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Sotheby’s went to great lengths to compare Botticelli’s suffering Christ to the rediscovered painting of Christ by Leonardo, “Salvator Mundi.” Christie’s sold that painting to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince for $450.3 million in 2017, and it later hung in a royal yacht. Both painters likely worked on these portraits within months of each other, experts say. Both depict Christ as regal, though Leonardo shows his figure holding up a hand in a sign of blessing, while Botticelli shows his Christ in pain, bound by ropes and with hands already scarred by crucifixion.

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“The ‘Salvator Mundi’ shows God as an icon, but Botticelli shows God in his humanity,” said Sotheby’s expert Christopher Apostle. “Botticelli’s version is less rigid, but it hits you in the face.”

Salvator Mundi Leonardo da Vinci

A member of staff poses with a painting by Leonardo da Vinci entitled ‘Salvator Mundi’ before it is auctioned in New York on November 15, at Christies on October 24, 2017 in London, England. The painting is the last Da Vinci in private hands. (Photo (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Botticelli’s Christ didn’t outsell Leonardo’s for complex reasons that likely have something to do with rarity—there are still four or five other Botticelli works in private hands, whereas surviving Leonardo works are more scarce—and with differing ownership histories. While “Salvator Mundi” was rediscovered after decades in obscurity and its authenticity hotly debated, Botticelli’s “Man” has been hidden away by the anonymous family that bought it for $28,000 in 1963, little-seen but its origins recently unquestioned.

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Mr. Apostle, who studied the work ahead of the sale, said Sotheby’s did discover something new about its Botticelli. Infrared tests reveal the artist initially started painting Christ as an infant, being hugged by his mother. But at some point, Botticelli turned the canvas upside down and started over, with this older Christ in mind.

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