Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman
When Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic painting “Salvator Mundi” – the last of his paintings in private hands – sold at auction for US$450.3 million, the art world was astonished. The previous record had only been $300 million, for “Interchange”, by the Dutch-American abstract artist Willem de Kooning. Who could have paid so much? It is about the same amount of money as the GDP of Tonga.
Although most of the feverish commentary on this record-breaking sale has focused on MBS’s efforts to stamp his authority on his Kingdom, there is another dimension to this narrative. In a country where Christianity is banned and persecuted, why did its Crown Prince buy such a theologically rich Christian painting? Its message is that Jesus of Nazareth is the redeemer of mankind and the Second Person of the Trinity, three Persons in One God. For believing Muslims this is blasphemy. Depictions of religious figures are banned.
Could this event could be a hopeful sign of the impact of the internet on the Arab world? Perhaps sympathy for Christianity and Western values are seeping into a country which has become notorious for religious intolerance. All citizens must be Muslims; the only permitted places of religious worship are mosques; the judicial system is based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna; and blasphemy against Islam may legally be punished by death (although this has not happened in recent times).
However, despite the strict religious atmosphere, enforced by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, almost half of men under 35 in Saudi Arabia fail to follow the Koran's precept of going to a mosque on Fridays.
Does the bold reforming spirit of Mohammed Bin Salman mark a moment for a rapprochement between Christianity and Islam in the Muslim Arab world?
No one thinks that cathedrals will rise in Mecca and Medina any time soon. But perhaps the purchase of a 500-year-old painting will enable a spirit of mutual esteem, respect and understanding between Christianity and Islam. After all, both recognize God as a father – though in very different ways – and both believe in the dignity of man. Where before there was a blank and insurmountable wall between the two faiths, perhaps a crack is opening up.
Peter Kopa is a Czech political analyst. He lives in Prague.