Millions of people worldwide have read Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code," and millions more will likely see the big-screen adaptation of the book when it hits theaters May 19.
Although it's all fiction, Brown and his collaborators are giggling all the way to the bank, riding a wave of consumer sales pegged on the insinuation that Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper" holds clues suggesting an intimate marital relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, long covered up by a secretive Catholic society.
Brown's no art historian, but Elizabeth Lev is. A professor of Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome campus, she spoke with Our Sunday Visitor recently about the dearth of reputable scholars to go along with Brown's theories and the real significance behind Leonardo's most treasured painting.
Our Sunday Visitor: In Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper," is it possible that the figure generally identified as the apostle John might actually be Mary Magdalene, as Dan Brown suggests in his novel "The Da Vinci Code"?
Elizabeth Lev: It's not. The figure to the right of Jesus is John, one of the Twelve. The stories of theGospel, all four Gospels, speak of the Twelve being present at the Last Supper. So we have 13 men -- 12 apostles and Jesus. If John isn't there, where was he?
OSV: Then why does John appear to have such feminine features?
Lev: The difference between a novelist and an art historian is that a novelist sees one painting and grows his story around it, while an art historian sees hundreds of paintings of the Last Supper and sees that it's a common thread throughout the paintings of the Last Supper to place John as a young man with soft curls around his face, for he is represented as the nonthreatening element at the Last Supper.
It is a question in the Renaissance for artists to show the image of the beloved apostle, the most trusted apostle, in a way that stands out against all the others. So Peter has a bristly white beard. Judas has deformed dark features. John sets out against them as a clear, luminous trusting soft figure. He's on the threshold of manhood, the youngest of the apostles, and Leonardo captures that in the tradition of Renaissance art.
OSV: What do art historians think about Dan Brown's theory about Mary Magdalene as a lover and spouse of Jesus who bore him a child?
Lev: I spend a lot of time with a lot of art historians, and I have yet to find one that even entertains the theory. As a matter of fact, for the discipline of art history, it's a nonstarter as an idea.
What art historians concentrate on in this painting isn't this John and Mary Magdalene question, something only brought up in the novel by Dan Brown, but rather on the innovation of Leonardo's painting by showing one of the most dramatic moments in human history, the moment when Jesus announces his betrayal. That's what we talk about, and that's why this painting is great.
OSV: What is going on in this painting?
The moment that Leonardo captures is uncommon, actually, among representations of the Last Supper. Most artists used the opportunity to show the institution of the Eucharist, and you would have Jesus holding bread and wine, with the apostles arrayed around him in a kind of meditative, prayerful, contemplative fashion.
Leonardo chooses drama. He chooses the moment of the Last Supper when, among the murmurs of the table and the conversations among old friends, Jesus announces that "one of you will betray me." The effects of Jesus's words can be seen in this painting.
Leonardo found the way to transport you to that moment as if you were looking at a still pool of water into which Jesus' words had dropped a stone. The first effect is a splash -- with three apostles on the left and three apostles on the right hurling back with arms upraised -- and the secondary reaction of the apostles at the ends of the table who focus your attention back on Christ.
OSV: Can you explain how he depicts the figures in this painting?
Lev: Leonardo went to tremendous effort to hide Leonardo the man from us, but he was capable of rendering humanity in a moving, deep, searching way. Particularly in this painting, the rendering of humanity in all its beautiful frailty comes out and you see Jesus isolated in the center of the painting.
Leonardo's technical development in this painting was to have all the lines of the painting receding backward to meet in one point in Christ's face. You have the rectangular window behind Jesus' head, which isolates the figure of Christ. You understand the very human loneliness he felt at the moment he announces that all his friends will leave him, that he, at the moment of his crucifixion, would be alone.
The figure that sits to the left of Christ, leaning forward with his face closest to Jesus, is Thomas, whom we all remember from the Gospel is the man that wouldn't believe that Christ has been resurrected until he actually puts his finger in Jesus' wounds. And there he is, with his finger raised ready to check, to make sure, to provide empirical evidence.
On the other side you have Peter, who leans forward toward John to ask quickly, "Who is it? Ask the master who it is!" Peter would later bluff ineffectually, "I will never deny you, I will never refuse you." Yet before the rooster crows, he will deny Christ three times.
Then you have the distorted and saddest element of humanity, a human being who can betray his friend, his master, his savior. Leonardo paints Judas pushed out into the foreground as the closest figure to us and shows his face distorted and darkened by the change within him. It is the true rendering of what it takes to commit the greatest crime of all.
OSV: What do you think about how Dan Brown treats Leonardo's "Last Supper"?
Lev: I think Dan's Brown rendering of Leonardo's art is very superficial in "The Da Vinci Code." It's a quick look at the painting, a remixing of the cards in the hand to create a novel to keep the story going, to keep the pages turning. Unfortunately, what he does is cheapen the great universality of this painting.
This painting is not about some secret twist between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It's about the most glorious, the most dreadful elements of humanity that we can possibly experience.
OSV: What about Brown's theory about the supposed relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?
Lev: Another big difference between novelists and art historians is that art historians learn to study paintings in shapes. In "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown talks about a "V" and an "M" invisible in the painting. What he is doing is identifying the geometric shapes that Leonardo uses to anchor the painting. The painting is not about this "V" between Jesus and John. The painting is about the triangle, which is Jesus. He just keeps missing the point!
Imagine being at a table with your friends. Your best friend, the leader of the group, gets up and announces, "One of you is going to hand me over to imprisonment and death tonight." Everybody takes a step back.
That's what Leonardo renders: Not "V" and "M," but an isolated triangle of the lonely, abandoned Christ and the rush of apostles away from him.
OSV: As an art historian and as a Christian, what do you think of "The Da Vinci Code"?
Lev: When I read "The Da Vinci Code," I was appalled as an art historian, as a teacher and as a Christian. I was taken aback by that smug little fact page in which they obscure the lines between fact and fiction. I was amazed to see the work of such an amazing artist as Leonardo dragged through the service of the story.
I remain distressed by the fact that the story takes so much hold, that people really do find themselves lost between fact and fiction.
Susanna Pinto is OSV's Vatican writer.