The 'Code' Craze Was Destined to Enter Art World Fiction
LEONARDO DA VINCI’S Last Supper fresco in Milan, Italy, has survived wartime bombings, years of repainting, and the Renaissance artist’s own use of experimental paint that rapidly flaked off the plaster. Still, Dan Brown’s mega-thriller, The Da Vinci Code, has persuaded millions that the effeminate-looking figure to Jesus’s right is not John, a male apostle, but Mary Magdalene, a female.
Such is the ambiguity of finding secret messages in antique paintings that, today, may look very different from the originals. But of course, we are talking about fiction.
In The Da Vinci Code, the painting’s female-looking figure plus some secret geometry leads our hero, Harvard symbolist Robert Langdon, to discover an ancient society perpetuated to protect the Holy Grail (i.e., the offspring of Jesus). Naturally, Langdon’s ally Sophie Neveu is a French “cryptologist,” that is, a code breaker.
The modern-day code craze was bound to show up in fiction, though it had some strong precedents in academia. Literary criticism, with its “close reading” of texts, came up with the idea that books are coded with surprisingly deep meanings and prejudices. In this view, the codes are not even known to the authors. The skilled interpreters must find them.
Along these lines, the Italian academic Umberto Eco became famous for his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose. It is said that Eco imbued the novel with his academic specialty, “semiotics,” which is the reading of symbols and signs. Some have exalted Name of the Rose as a semiotic novel. On the other hand, others see it as simply an atmospheric detective story, the atmosphere being thick with medieval beliefs and lore (nothing particularly semiotic about it).
The theme of “secret codes” actually got its boost in commercial publishing in 1998. That was the year of the international bestseller The Bible Code. The nonfiction book was written by an Israeli mathematician. He purported to show that the biblical text predicted modern-day assassinations, among other things. In two subsequent books (code II and code III), the entire human future is prognosticated.
For a very long time, painters have been presumed to put hidden meanings in their paintings. The new art history field of “iconology” (as distinct from iconography) dedicates itself to looking for these. So it’s surprising that there are not more novels about codes hidden in works of art. But we do have a few.
Perhaps the best documented is British novelist Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (2007). Well documented because Bennett builds her story on a well-known debate over the meaning of three works by the Dutch artist Hans Holbein, who painted at the English court in late 1520s. Holbein did two portraits and a sketch of Sir Thomas More and his family circle.
Novelist Bennett, and some academics, link the paintings to one of the top, unsolved political mysteries in British history: what happened to two prince-heirs locked in the London Tower during the reign of King Richard III? The question is important because the Tudor Dynasty that overthrew Richard justified it on his murder of the princes. However, if Richard did not kill them, then the Tudors are usurpers.
According to one scholar, one of the Holbein family portraits contains eighty symbols that assert Richard III’s innocence. As a painter in the court for six years, according to this theory, Holbein had learned all the secret facts of Richard's innocence from Thomas More, the ultimate political insider in the House of Tudor.
Fiction writer Bennett has turned this into an engaging romance novel that centers on the twenty-three-year-old adopted daughter of More, Meg Gigg. She appears in one family portrait but not the other. She is also an object of love rivalry between Holbein and another court suitor. The novel’s backstory, of course, is about the intrigues of Tudor King Henry VIII’s court, and the real fate of those two princes in the Tower. The painting has to tell the story in symbols because Thomas More cannot risk writing it down in plain English.
In addition to novelist Bennet, two other writers have used secret coding in artworks to enliven their contemporary novels. Michael Frayn does this in his Headlong (1999), and Noah Charney in his The Art Thief (2007).
Frayn’s comic novel follows the attempts of Martin Clay, an academic iconologist, to prove he has found a missing work by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, who died in 1569. Iconology has often been confused with semiotics, and usually it is only scholarly practitioners who know the difference, or at least debate about it. But in essence, they are both attempts to find deeper clues and “truths” in an artwork. At the comic end of Headlong, protagonist Clay’s final, crucial clue on the antique painting is burned to a cinder.
In Charney’s Art Thief, the clue is mathematical. The plot denouement hinges on opening a safe in the home of a suspect. The two French sleuths, Inspector Bizot and his art academic sidekick, Jean-Paul Lesgourges, find an etching by Albrecht Dürer, the famous Melancholia I. One of their previous clues points to a “magic square,” a numerical oddity, in the Dürer etching. This leads to an “aha!” moment: the Dürer provides the combination to the safe.
“The thieves gave us the safe name, and the combination to open it, while they were stealing the painting,” Lesgourges says in a moment of triumph. (This mathematical clue element can be a bit abstruse, but author Charney helpfully adds an explanation of the magic square in the reading group discussion appendix of the novel).
Which brings us back to Dan Brown—and the question of who launched the art coding craze first. The question produced a few lawsuits.
British nonfiction authors Michael Baigent, et al., sued Brown for plagiarism. They had already written Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which interprets a Nicholas Poussin painting of tomb-side Greek shepherds (Even in Arcadia I exist) as a clue to the same Templar treasure that Brown alludes to. Next, author Lewis Perdue claimed that he preceded Brown with two similar novels: The Da Vinci Legacy (1983) and Daughter of God (2000). None of the lawsuits worked.
Short of a lawsuit, the Russian art historian and scientist Mikhail Anikin simply declared that he coined “da Vinci code” in his own interpretation of Leonardo’s works.
By comparison, the novelistic use of supposed Hans Holbein codes has been much less contentious. When it comes to King Richard III, advocates disagree agreeably. Some take Richard’s side, others side with the Tudors. A much beloved 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time, plays this up—in favor of Richard. Here, a seasoned English detective looks at a painted portrait of King Richard III—stereotyped as a reviled, hunchback monarch—and cannot believe he has the face of a murderer. So he proves King Richard’s innocence. Not bad, considering it started by looking at an old, old painting.