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Why would a Saudi Prince pay $450m for a painting of Christ?

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci (Getty Images)

The news that the buyer of Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold, is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman,  known catchily as MBS, comes as something as a revelation. The painting is destined to hang in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Most commentators have seen this as a part of the rivalry between the United Arab Emirates (which are allied to Saudi Arabia) and Qatar, with whom they have broken off diplomatic relations. Qatar has some very fine new museums. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an attempt to outflank Qatar culturally. Having the most expensive painting on earth (or the most overpriced, depending on your opinion), counts as an important coup.

All this reminds one of the time when new and emerging nations did their best to buy up the cultural heritage of the Old World. This was the habit of American millionaires in the Gilded Age, and a trip round the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and other Stateside museums, reminds you just how much these great men and women had to spend, just how much taste they had, and just how willing people in Europe were to sell. Since that time, great works of art from the past have become increasingly hard to buy, and it was undoubtedly the rarity value of Salvator Mundi that helped push up its price to stratospheric levels.

But Salvator Mundi is also an interesting painting for MBS to buy for several reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia is not as rich as it was, thanks to low oil prices, so it represents a considerable outlay even for the Prince. Secondly, the Leonardo is not just a portrait (something that the strictly aniconic Muslims have never historically appreciated, given the Koran’s condemnation of images), it is a portrait of Christ the Saviour of the World. To import such a picture into Saudi Arabia, where rosary beads are banned, along with any other Christian paraphernalia, would presumably be illegal. That the Prince has bought the picture may be a tangible sign of his moving towards a more moderate form of Islam, as he has spoken of doing. This could mean that the buying of the painting is a sign of hope for the many Christians who live and work in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they are going to be granted some form of religious toleration. Conversely, that the Prince has bought the painting may be a message to the religious conservatives in the Kingdom that the Prince is setting out on the path to moderation.

Thus we should be extremely pleased that a Prince from a country that bans Christianity should have bought a Christian picture: it could be a sign of better things to come. Given the mania for all things to do with Leonardo, it is possible that tourists will now flock in huge numbers to the Louvre Abu Dhabi; in which case the picture may prove to be worth its huge price tag. And when they look at this image of the Saviour of the World, what then? Let us hope that at least some of the tourists will go away spiritually enriched, and that the image of the Lord may bring blessings on Abu Dhabi, the Emirates, and entire the Arabian Peninsula.