The Artwork: What's So Controversial about Leonardo?
Well, in our conclusion to The Da Vinci Code series, I wanted to look at the artwork, particularly The Last Supper and La Gioconda, since they feature so prominently in the book. We'll begin with La Gioconda.
More commonly, it's known as The Mona Lisa, but this is it's official name. As such, there is no anagram about calling it The Mona Lisa (Amon, L'Isa?! Whatever). In fact, the name "Mona Lisa" wasn't something that Leonardo called his painting, but comes from Giorgio Vasari's biography of Leonardo, published thirty-one years after his death! The painting is a portrait of Lisa, the wife of wealthy Florentine businessman, Francesco del Giocondo. Since "Mona" is a common contraction of "Madonna", the Italian word for "My Lady", the title given to the painting by Vasari literally means "My Lady Lisa" and has nothing to do with Amon or Isis. Neither is it a self-portrait of Leonardo in drag, nor a celebration of androgyny. It is what it is, a beautiful painting.
Brown makes the claim that the horizon on Lisa Gherardini's left side is higher than that on her right, and since left=feminine and right=masculine, therefore this is a subtle way of expressing the glories of woman. Except, on what does Brown base his assumption that the left is the "feminine" and right is "masculine"? And even so, I wonder if he was looking at the same painting that we are. Click on it and blow it up, if you want! Not only is there no definitive horizon line, but the heights of the background are even, if varied. The highest points on each are pretty much the same, and can hardly be construed as containing symbolism!
So much for accurately describing artwork, Brown!
The Last Supper
Because Dan Brown spends so much time on The Last Supper, so will we. In The Da Vinci Code, Brown makes a number of embarrassingly ignorant claims about the painting and its meaning, so lets compare Brown's reality with, well, real reality.
The first thing that Brown claims about the painting is that there is no "Chalice" in the painting. No "Holy Grail." Instead, according to Brown, there are 13 cups of wine at the table, one for each Apostle plus Jesus. So because Da Vinci didn't paint the Grail, according to Brown, it's actually not the cup, but Mary Magdalene, and all that jazz.
Well, I'm a little puzzled here. Which is it, Brown? Are there 13 cups, or no cup? If there are 13 cups, then what's the big deal?! The Grail is right there! Jesus' cup! Just because it's not gold and doesn't have a stem doesn't mean it's not the Holy Grail! You'd think that Brown hadn't seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! The Grail is right there!
The second thing that Brown claims about this painting is that the person to the left of Christ...well, our left, His right...is a woman, Mary Magdalene. He claims that the two figures make a V in the middle of the painting, as the focal point, thus symbolising feminity again. Further, Brown writes:
Sophie examined the figure to Jesus' immediate right, focusing in. As she studied the person's face and body, a wave of astonishment rose within her. The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt...female. (p. 243)Here again, I find myself wondering if Brown and we are looking at the same painting. The alleged V shape between Jesus and "Mary" is not the focal point of the painting. Jesus Himself is.
Further, the figure to Jesus' right does not have "a hint of a bosom", nor red hair, nor can one really describe the figure's hands as "delicate". "Blurry" maybe. Much is made over the fact that this figure has no beard, so therefore it must be female! No one seems to pay any attention to the fact that the third guy on Jesus' left also has no beard! No one cares about him!
The fact is, the person to the right of Jesus is John the Apostle. Traditionally, John was considered the youngest of the Apostles, and so, frequently, was portrayed without a beard. This was the common Renaissance motif for painting young men: womanly faces with men's bodies--and that, contrary to Brown's ideas, is what we have here.
The third thing Brown says is that Judas, John, and Jesus together form a hidden "M". Brown claims it stands either for Mary Magdalene or Matrimonio. He then says this M has been subtly hidden in many different Churches throughout the world, most blatantly, at Our Lady of Paris in London. Well, if there's a Church called "Our Lady" of anything, with a big M on the altar, I wonder what that M would stand for? Surely not Mary, the Mother of Jesus! But again, Brown cleverly avoids mentioning Our Lady in order to make his discussion of the other Mary more convincing. If people kept in mind the importance in Christian iconography of Our Blessed Mother, this hogwash about Mary Magdalene would never have gotten anywhere!
Finally, Brown makes the audacious claim that St. Peter was jealous of Mary Magdalene because Jesus intended to found the Church on her, instead of him. Therefore Leonardo portrayed Peter behaving threateningly toward Mary (who is really John), making a hand-across-the-throat gesture at her...er...him. In fact, if you look, St. Peter's hand is actually resting on John's shoulder. All his fingers are out, not just the one. His index finger is a bit longer than the others, since it is pointing to Jesus rather than just following the curve of John's shoulder, but it's hard to construe it as some sort of threatening gesture!
Moreover, Brown discusses an allegedly disembodied dagger, another subtle threat to Mary Magdalene. Brown claims that if you count the arms, it belongs to no one at all! As a matter of fact, the dagger belongs to Peter. He just happens to be holding it at a very awkward angle. Apparently, this knife dealy gave Leonardo some trouble, and he practised it a few times in his sketchbooks. Thanks, Leonardo, for putting the mystery to rest. Too bad Mr. Brown didn't study up!
So why does Peter have a knife? Why is his hand on John's shoulder? What exactly is happening in this picture?
Well, Brown gets one thing right about the painting. The scene portrayed is in fact Jesus' announcement that one of His disciples will betray Him. At this announcement, according to the Gospels, all the disciples are shocked, and ask, "Is it I?" (Mark 14:17-21). Hence, Leonardo's depiction of the disciples in a bit of commotion.
In John's Gospel, at this point, Peter leans over to John and asks him to ask Jesus who He meant, since John was sitting right next to Jesus (John 13:21-27). Jesus' response is that it is the person who took bread at the same time He did, and look again at the painting: Judas (that guy between Peter and John clutching the bag of money) is reaching for a loaf of bread just as Jesus is! So, the only remaining question is, what on earth is Peter doing with a dagger? Well, in Luke's Gospel, chapter 22, verses 35-38, Jesus tells His disciples to be prepared for the crisis of His arrest and crucifixion. He tells them even to sell their cloaks to buy swords if they don't already have one. At this, the disciples pick up two knives and say, "Hey, here are some swords!" Later on, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus is arrested, Peter uses one of those very knives to hack off a guard's ear (John 18:10,11). Since the sword was first grasped at the Last Supper, Leonardo threw it in, just so we'd know that this is Peter.
So there you have it. The two most controversial paintings in The Da Vinci Code really aren't all that controversial at all. In fact, they're pretty straightforward, and just as any good painter should, Leonardo put together a very clear masterpiece full of subtle detail and clear meaning.
The neat thing about The Last Supper, is that it was painted on a wall in the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, in the dining hall. The light sources in the painting even match up to those that are in the hall, to make those dining there feel as if they were actually at the Last Supper. That it depicts the point where Jesus predicts that one of His disciples would betray Him serves as a reminder that we all must remain faithful to Christ. None of the disciples knew whether they were the person, and all had to ask, "Is it I?" That should be our question, too. Dan Brown would make us all Christ's betrayers. But ironically, he has given many the incentive to explore and research the truth of the Catholic Church and of Jesus Christ! Such an examination can only serve to strengthen our faith, if we really do, as the tagline for The Da Vinci Code movie encourages us, "Seek the Truth."