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The Da Vinci Code’s ignorance of art15 min read

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UPDATE: Special note to all drive-by Googling potential commenters at the bottom of the post.

With a book that has its foundation in the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, one would expect at least a general understanding of art. You would also expect the writer to get at least basic facts right. If you expected that going into The Da Vinci Code, you were sorely disappointed.

The misstatements and outright falsehoods start from the very name of the book. If you wanted to talk about a code that I had written, you could say “Aaron’s code” or “Aaron of Two or Three’s code.” You could not say “of Two or Three’s code,” it would make no sense and would not give you all the information you need.

It is the same with Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci is not his last name, it just says he is from the town of Vinci. Yes, this is a minor issue, but it speaks to the larger issue of the book being careless with facts – even the issues that it claims are facts in the opening page of the book.

First, the book portrays him as being strongly anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. The truth is we don’t know his beliefs. He did believe in a creator God, whom he called “the Light of all things.” So he was hardly an atheist or agnostic.

We also do not know of his sexual orientation. Dan Brown feeds the speculation that Leonardo was gay, but there is no real evidence to support that either. At one point he was charged with sodomy, but the charges were dropped because of lack of evidence.

In one of his oddest claims, Brown says that Leonardo, while being anti-Catholic, produced “hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions.” The only problem is, besides his drawings, Leonardo produced less than 30 paintings. He also could not have been the recipient of numerous commissions for Pope Leo X because he didn’t spend much time in Rome. Most of his life was split between Milan and Florence. At the age of 60 he tried to go to Rome, but younger artist like Michelangelo and Raphael were already there, so he went to France.

The Louvre
The central location of the DVC is also home to another error. La Pyramide and La Pyramide Inverse play prominent roles in the plot line of the book and are very intriguing structures, but Dan Brown had to make them even more interesting by making up false facts about them. The book claims that per the specific instructions of French President Francios Mitterand, La Pyramide was built with exactly 666 panes of glass – using the number many claim to be the Antichrist’s number. In reality, the pyramid has 673, which I guess is close enough for Brown.

Vitruvian Man
Early in DVC a body is positioned in such a way so as to point Robert Langdon to this 1487 illustration by Leonardo. Langdon sees the circle, symbolizing feminine protection, around the dead male body which “completes Da Vinci’s intended message – male and female harmony.”

Needless to say this is wrong. In the first century, Vitruvius wrote what he believed was the perfect architectural proportions, which he believed were also applicable to humans. He held that if a perfectly proportioned figure were placed within a square whose corners were touching the boundaries of a circle, then the exact center of both circle and square would be at the figure’s navel.

Leonardo came the closest to achieving this proportion in this drawing, but only the circle is centered exactly on the navel. So clearly it had nothing to do with “male and female harmony.”

Madonna of the Rocks/Virgin of the Rocks
Brown uses these two paintings to push his alternative theories, but he gets numerous facts wrong.

Madonna is on display at the Louvre (Virgin is at the National Gallery in London). During their escape from the Louvre, Sophie Neveu uses Madonna as a priceless shield. While doing this, Brown describes the painting as 5 feet tall. The Louvre disagrees. They say the painting is 6.5 feet tall. He can’t even get the right height of a painting, but his theories of history are as viable as the New Testament?

One area where Brown is correct is that the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo to paint the scene, but the nuns were not happy with the finished product and had him paint another one – Virgin of the Rocks. But that is where Brown’s facts cease.

For starters the Confraternity was an all-male organization at that point. They did not like Leonardo’s finished painting, but simply because he didn’t follow their precise instructions about the content.

The key to Brown’s conspiracy is relying on the art ignorance of his readers. He claims that Madonna shows John the Baptist giving a blessing to Jesus and an threatening hand of Mary going to John. But he confuses John and Jesus, most likely getting this misinterpretation from the discredited book, The Templar Revolution.

The most common and accepted interpretation is that Jesus is blessing John and Mary has her hand over Jesus in a protective manner, not over John in a threatening way. In becomes clear in the Virgin, where John is given the traditional staff, a symbol for John the Baptist. Also in the second painting the angel Uriel is no longer pointing to John the Baptist.

But the changes made are not dramatic in any way, so it seems unlikely that the first would have contained anything so outrageous and shocking.

The Last Supper
In DVC, Brown calls The Last Supper the most famous “fresco” in the world. A fresco is a painting applied to a surface while the plaster is still wet. The Last Supper is actually a mural because Leonardo’s perfectionism would not allow him to work quickly enough for his painting to qualify as a fresco.

Here is another case of Brown finding a meaning in a painting that no art historian agrees with and that Leonardo himself disagrees with.

Brown, through Sir Leigh Teabing, gives the evidence for placing Mary Magdalene in the painting in the place of John the apostle. There is no grail or communion cup on the table, indicating that Mary was the grail. The figure seated to the left of Jesus has a feminine look, so it must be Mary. The composition of the painting makes a negative space “M” around Jesus and a “V” between Jesus and the supposed Mary, again indicating Mary Magdalene as the grail.

There are so many things wrong with this. The idea of a “Holy Grail” did not come about until a poem in 1170. Nothing in the Bible indicates there was a special cup or grail. So Leonardo leaving it out, would indicate his dedication to portraying the painting as closely to the Biblical accounts as possible.

Most art historians agree that Leonardo is painting the Last Supper events describe in John’s Gospel, where he reveals that one of his disciples is going to betray him. This gives us two good pieces of evidence that refute the DVC’s claims.

In John, he describes himself as sitting next to Jesus, close enough to lean on him. The fact that John appears feminine is not uncommon. Many Renaissance paintings show men as angelic even androgynous. John the apostle was especially depicted as young and feminine is many paintings of the time period.

But somehow if John actually was Mary Magdalene, where was John? If Leonardo wanted to include Mary, why not simply include her and John. But we only find 13 people in the painting. Who makes more sense to include, apart from the conspiracy theories?

As to the “V” symbolizing the female womb and the “M” for Mary, the Gospel of John’s description again helps us in this instance. Most art historians believe the painting captures the moment when Jesus announces a traitor is among them. This is why you see the disciples recoiled away from Jesus and the shock on their faces. The openness around Jesus clearly identifies him as the central figure and foreshadows the disciples deserting him and having to face the cross alone.

Brown also points out Peter’s hand across “Mary’s” throat and then a knife in his other hand, as clues that Peter was jealous of Mary. Nothing can be determined by the hand pointing across her throat. I’m not even sure when dragging a finger across the throat was meant as a threat, but it is obvious that it is not a threatening gesture here.

The knife in Peter’s hand actually brings us to the most important evidence we have about The Last Supper – Leonardo’s own notes. In his notes he explains that one disciple turn his hand and the knife in it so quickly that it knocks over a glass of wine. Most art historians interpret the knife as foreshadowing the way Peter would defend Jesus in the garden, not as any animosity toward Mary.

And Leonardo’s notes should knock down the final nail in Brown’s conspiracy theory – Leonardo clearly marks the figure sitting at the right hand of Jesus as John – no more controversy.

Mona Lisa
This classic painting is probably the most famous piece of art and the most abused by Dan Brown’s novel.

During a flashback sequence, Robert Langdon recalls a discussion of the painting with a group of prison inmates studying art. Contrary to what DVC says, Leonardo gave no reason as to why he brought the painting to France and he certainly did not take it everywhere he went.

Nor is woman’s smile the “world’s most documented insider joke.” No reputable art historian claims to know the reason behind the smile. Brown claims that the painting portrays an androgynous being, representing Leonardo’s own sexuality and that is the reason for the smile.

He also claims the title, Mona Lisa, is an anagram of Amon and L’isa – Egyptian deities that represented male and female fertility. So even the name of the painting tells us that it was meant to point toward androgyny.

Several problems exists with this. L’isa is not an alternative spelling of Isis, as DVC claims. Second, Amon was the god of air, not fertility and his goddess was Mut not Isis, whose consort was Osiris.

Also, Leonardo never gave the painting the name Mona Lisa. It has never been known as that in Italy (La Gioconda) or in France (La Joconde). The name originates about 30 years after Leonardo’s death in a biography by Giorgio Vasari, who calls the painting “Lady Lisa” or “Mona Lisa.” He named it that because believed the woman in the painting was Lisa Gheradini del Giocondo, which is why the Italians call it La Gioconda.

It would be fairly hard for Leonardo to pass on some mysterious code or explanation in a name he never gave a painting.

This post could go on almost as long as the novel itself, detailing all the details missed, facts misstated and issues made up in The Da Vinci Code, but this should illustrate the absurdity to trust anything with in this very much fiction novel, despite the claims that all descriptions of artwork in the book are accurate. Clearly, that is not the case for the Code.

Special Note:
Googlers (or Yahooers or MSNites or whatever your search engine du jour may be):
Before you jump to the bottom to add your new, fresh wit and insight to this debate, please understand the following:
1. I’m well aware it’s “JUST A BOOK!!!!” or so I’ve been continually told. If you really want to impress me say that and then add the unintentionally ironic statement of “but you know it could be true.” Media, fictions books including, have a huge impact on society and culture. Ask Domino’s pizza what one stupid YouTube video can do? Therefore, I read the book and did some research on the things it mentions. I posted that here.

2. I have no obsession with Dan Brown or The Da Vinci Code. I’m not “really worked up” about it. This posts were written at the height of the DVC mania, I was merely using some resources that I had to make proper information available. I don’t lie awake at night plotting ways I can try to make Dan Brown’s life miserable. In fact, I do that probably about as much as Dan Brown worries about me doing that.

3. I am not insanely jealous of Dan Brown, though I can’t say that I would mind writing shoddy (though interesting), poorly researched fiction books and make millions. Nevermind, strike that, I am jealous, except the whole “shoddy” thing. But that has nothing to do with my take down of his books. I am “jealous” of numerous writers, but I don’t write posts against their books because they aren’t as poorly done and they are not part of the national conversation and a pop culture phenomenon.

4. I have no delusions of grandeur that Brown knows who I am or has ever read this, nor do I really care. I did not write this in order to attack Brown or to give him more attention. He had all the attention he needed. My piddly little blog post is not going to increase or dampen that. It was written merely as an opportunity to present the facts.

5. The book/movie does a horrible job with the history of events and people which are dearly important to me. I want to make sure that the correct information is out there – nothing more, nothing less. So I took the time to prepare a post on the subject matter and have tried to respond to all serious comments here.

If you want a conversation about it, we can do that. If you want to leave a smart alec comment, you won’t be the first and you probably won’t be the last. But if it makes you feel better to defend a multimillionaire writer who couldn’t be bothered to get basic facts right and attack a blogger who did the research for free – go for it. The world (or at least the rest of the people who find this from Google) await your unparalleled wit.