The mythological tale of Leda and the Swan has been the subject of numerous artworks for centuries, illustrated by master artists all over the world. Michelangelo was one of them, having created a painting about the encounter between Zeus and Leda in the 16th century as a commission for an Italian duke. It was later displayed by the French royal family before it vanished completely — along with Leonardo da Vinci’s version of the subject (painted in 1508). It may have been destroyed due to its erotic and violent subject matter, but its true fate is unknown to this day. (The above photo is a copy of Michelangelo’s work by Peter Paul Rubens.)
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ, Salvator Mundi, is just one of many lost works by the Italian Renaissance artist that have eventually resurfaced, but several are still missing. Perhaps the most intriguing of these artworks is Da Vinci’s Medusa. Art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote about the painting of the head of Medusa on a wooden shield in 1500, which Da Vinci created as a young man: “He began to think what he could paint upon it, that might be able to terrify all who should come upon it, producing the same effect as once did the head of Medusa.” At one time it was believed to belong to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who also commissioned Caravaggio to create a painting of the snake-haired woman (pictured). Others believe the stories behind the work are totally fabricated.
The Lion of Nimrud (a wood and ivory relief of a lion attacking a Nubian), considered a priceless example of Phoenician art (from 8th-9th century BC), disappeared after thousands of ancient artifacts were looted during the war in Iraq. It was one of the most prized artworks in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, where many of the 170,000 artifacts were too fragile to be hidden in underground vaults during the attacks. Dr. Donny George, research director of the Iraq Museum, called the looting the “crime of the century.” The British Museum purchased some of the remaining Nimrud ivories (one of them pictured above) to keep them safe.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs took inspiration from this lost masterwork by Titian, Venus in Front of Her Mirror, painted around 1555. The Venus was one of Titian’s favorite subjects, and this painting is believed to be one of the earliest created by the artist, without the help of any assistants. Historians speculate that there are two copies of this painting, one that was lost from the Spanish royal collection during the 19th century. King Philip II of Spain, one of Titian’s devoted patrons, first received the painting in 1567. A copy by Rubens hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
The Amber Room of the Catherine Palace in Russia has a unique history in that it was stolen, its whereabouts known, and then lost. During the war, the Nazis disassembled the gilded and mirrored chamber of amber panels and ordered the pieces to be shipped to Königsberg so they could be displayed. From there, stories about its whereabouts vary greatly. Some believed it was lost during a bombing, others say it sunk into the ocean, and several say it was moved yet again. The panels never resurfaced, but two small pieces of the Amber Room did. The room itself was reconstructed in 2003, based on old photographs, after decades of work.
“I think I tend to destroy the better paintings… I try and take them further, and they lose all their qualities,” Francis Bacon said in 1962, regarding his reputation for frequently obliterating his work. For years, it was assumed that the third in a series of portraits after Velázquez’s 1650 painting, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, titled Study after Velazquez III (one of the nearly 50 variants Bacon created during the 1950s and ’60s is pictured above), met the same fate as some of Bacon’s other destroyed work. That theory was called into question when two of the works resurfaced in 1999. Some historians now believe it could simply be lost.
One of the earliest narrative artworks and a piece full of action, mystery, and incredibly crafted details, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the story of William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson, and the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The colorful embroidery is 230 feet long and contains scenes with captions detailing the struggle for the throne, but the end of the tapestry (believed to be around nine feet long) has been missing for some time. When the tapestry was rediscovered in a cedar chest in Bayeux Cathedral during the 15th century, its frayed end left people wondering if a portion was ripped off, the work had never been finished, or if it disintegrated with time. The missing piece was recently reconstructed and depicts William’s coronation.
The only evidence of Miró’s 1937 mural The Reaper, also known as Catalan Peasant in Revolt, exists in several black-and-white photographs. The two-story work was created for the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. Several of the world’s greatest artists showed work that year, including Picasso — whose Guernica was displayed near Miró’s creation. (Picasso’s similarly political piece won most of the public’s attention.) When the exhibition closed, the mural was dismantled and donated to the Spanish government, but it’s unclear what happened to the shipment of six panels headed to the Ministry of Fine Arts in Valencia.
Woman Bathing, sometimes referred to as Woman at Her Toilet, is a lost Van Eyck panel painting, which most art lovers are familiar with via what is believed to be a copy or a study (possibly created by artists from the painter’s Bruges workshop, and pictured above) housed in Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. The painting bears a resemblance to Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait, but is surprisingly intimate and erotic for the time period.
The famous Navicella mosaic in old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome was unique in that it was accidentally destroyed while being moved during the construction of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica during the 17th century, and was reborn as an entirely new work when the fragments were moved back into position. The closest version to the original is a full-scale copy (pictured) that was painted in 1628. It captures almost all of the 43-foot original work.