In our Life Under Quarantine series on the Rosebud Reservation, student photographer Alexa Elk Looks Back artfully and accurately documents the optics of looking through an orb. In this time, when the world feels upside down, the inverted presentation feels unexpectedly apt.


Photography by Alexa Looks Back

Leonardo da Vinci was also one to experiment with the optics of orbs. In his late-career work “Salvatore Mundi”, he painted what was long interpreted as an “inaccurate” rendering of the optics of an orb. However, late-career da Vinci was an expert on optics and never tired of experimenting with the optical effects of different surfaces and positions in space. In his section of the book, “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts”, Martin Kemp investigates da Vinci’s orb fascination through journals, finding note of rock crystals and their optics at the time the “Salvator Mundi” was painted. Despite his research, did da Vinci intentionally misrepresent the world as seen through the orb?  

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd., 2017.

A 2020 paper by UC Irvine computer scientist professors Michael Goodrich, Shuang Zhao and doctoral student Marco (Zhanhang) Liang disputes this inaccuracy that has perplexed art historians for years, with a computer graphics tool called “physically based rendering”. This method simulates the light depicted in the painting and found the scene could in fact be recreated with a combination of environmental light, an overhead light source, and a hollow glass sphere.

Rendering of a solid orb (A) and a hollow orb (B) in Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Courtesy of University of California, Irvine.

This theory of hollowness was previously speculated by da Vinci biographer Walter Issacson: “Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb…Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.” So how do we interpret the hollow and hallowed work? Does da Vinci’s orb obtain the divine clarity only the “Savior of the World” could hold?

The inverted reflection in the hands of Alexa Elk Looks Back exhibits a playful interaction between individual and landscape and puts the state of the world momentarily in 15 year-old Alexa’s hands. In contrast, da Vinci’s rendering uses the orb to magnify and make crystal clear the power of the anointed patriarch to right the world. If Alexa Elk Looks Back returns to that landscape with a hollow orb, might she rectify our world?

By Veronica Burt & Kay Matschullat



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