It beat heavily hyped contemporary shows such as the Turner Prize exhibition featuring Tracey Emin´s soiled bed at the Tate; "Apocalypse," the follow-up to "Sensation" at the Royal Academy; and the first exhibition at the new Tate Modern gallery.
Neil MacGregor, National Gallery director, told the Telegraph on Thursday: "I am astonished."
"Seeing Salvation" boasted paintings of Christ through the ages by Mantegna, Titian, Bellini and Dali and was the only major cultural extravaganza in the millennium year to focus on celebrating Christianity, the newspaper said.
Unveiled just after Tate Modern opened, the exhibition even had difficulty finding a sponsor. MacGregor said: "We were very nervous about putting it on. We really didn´t know whether anybody would come."
The survey was undertaken by the Art Newspaper which, instead of looking at total visitor figures, calculated daily attendances. "Seeing Salvation" drew 5,002 visitors a day, compared with just 1,647 at the Royal Academy for "Apocalypse" which featured contemporary works owned by
Charles Saatchi, including a sculptural work by Jake and Dinos Chapman showing bloodied victims of war and the Holocaust.
The Turner Prize exhibition with Emin´s bed, surrounded by her dirty pants, ashtrays and empty bottles, attracted just 1,201 visitors a day. Though Tate Modern is on course to get 5 million visitors in its first 12 months, its first special exhibition, "Between Cinema and a Hard Place," got a daily attendance of only 1,106.
A similar picture emerges in other countries, with no exhibition of a living artist featured in the top 10 places and few in the top 50. An exhibition in Athens, Greece, of El Greco paintings came top with 6,843 visitors a day, followed by two exhibitions at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Anna Somers Cocks, editor of Art Newspaper, said she was "amazed" that "Seeing Salvation," seen by a final total of 355,175, was Britain´s most successful exhibition.
"No focus group would ever have said that doing an exhibition about the face of Christ would be a success," she said. "I am not surprised by the figures of ´Apocalypse.´ People gave it a real thumbs down because it was a cheap attempt to imitate ´Sensation.´ People are bored with the Turner Prize. I think they have had enough of it because they are slightly freak shows."
MacGregor said the success of "Seeing Salvation" was because people continued to be fascinated by the questions of what Christ looked like and how and why the traditional picture of his face came into being.