Monday, May 23, 2016

Part I: The Gift of Da Vinci in Fiction Keeps on Giving (no. 50)

 by Larry Witham


WHAT PUBLISHERS WEEKLY once called “the Da Vinci juggernaut” has ground to a halt. Still, when that publishing trend was at full steam, it seeded the fiction world with an array of novels about the Renaissance artist.
            Some Da Vinci novels have been of the “religious conspiracy thriller” variety. Others have used the historical romance format. They featured women—Italian aristocrats or models for Leonardo’s paintings—who intersected with the artist’s life. One novel series has portrayed Leonardo as a murder detective, and another as a military engineer who, in three episodes, helps his Italian prince fight off the enemy. (To be sure, the juggernaut has had many nonfiction works as well, all thriving on a sudden craze in the book market for Da Vinci titles).
            The standout novels, of course, have been the two works about The Last Supper, Leonardo’s most famous painting next to the Mona Lisa. Enough has been said about The Da Vinci Code (2000), the novel that triggered the Da Vinci juggernaut. So we will look at its nearest clone, The Secret Supper (2006 in English), by the Spanish academic-turned-novelist Javier Sierra.
            It came out in Spanish in 2004, the same year The Da Vinci Code was translated in Europe. And it’s no secret that The Secret Supper did well on the coat tails of Da Vinci Code, offering an even more complex plot about how Leonardo put “secret” messages into his Milan-monastery wall mural of Jesus eating with his twelve disciples.
            Set in the fifteenth century, the story kicks off with Father Agostino Leyre, a papal investigator and cryptologist, telling his tale, looking back on the fateful events. When he had worked for the Vatican, a person named “the Soothsayer” in Milan sent a cryptic seven-sentence letter in Latin to Rome. The letter warned that Milan’s political leadership was setting up a pagan society at a famed monastery.
            When Leyre arrives, he meets Leonardo Da Vinci, who has begun painting The Last Supper in the monastery’s refectory. Although Leyre is trying to find the Soothsayer, it is Leonardo who is all the talk in Milan. Orthodox believers are worried that Leonardo’s two recent paintings—known to us as the Madonna of the Rocks and The Last Supper—veer from traditional Christian symbolism, and thus suggest a budding heresy.
            And not only that. It has also become known that the late wife of the ruler of Milan had studied astrology and pagan thought with Leonardo. Meanwhile, Leonardo’s apprentice is doing a painting of Mary Magdalene—not exactly a church saint—and is using a young countess in the ruling household as the model.
            Well, Father Leyre can’t really figure out what’s going on until the end, but we can jump there for the sake of argument. In short, a “lost gospel” had resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance. Contrary to the papal authority, it told the story of how Jesus gave his true teachings to the Church of John (not that of Peter, who founded the Roman Church). John, the disciple, had shared this secret knowledge with Mary Magdalene. During the early persecution of Jesus followers, Mary went to south France to preach (and had her own children, it seems).
            Now, in Leonardo’s time, the Plato scholar Marsilio Ficino has recovered the lost gospel of the Church of John, and thus its secrets (centered on St. Magdalene). Fearful that this true gospel will be lost again, Ficino gives the secrets to Leonardo. The painter, in turn, paints the secret truths into The Last Supper (truth you can see using a complex decoding key).
            The Ficino-Leonardo idea is that when people contemplate the painting, they will be converted to the true faith. Moreover, the painting can serve as the initiation sacrament for a new religious movement. The novel also suggests that other great painters (Raphael, Botticelli, etc.) would copy Leonardo’s Last Supper, spreading the secret truth to the world.
            The Soothsayer, as it turns out, is a gnarly one-eyed monk in the Milan monastery. He had converted to the new truth of Leonardo and Ficino, but now he is an embittered apostate who opposes them. So the one-eyed monk tattled to Rome. He wants to crush the new movement, which in its late medieval and Renaissance form is called the Cathars (a real historical group).
            In the end, the truth of the Church of John is so compelling that Father-Leyre-the-investigator becomes a convert. We find him in exile in the Egyptian desert, looking back, telling his story. Don’t forget the countess either. She is, after all, in the blood line of Mary Magdalene, a secret held by Leonardo, who is a key player in the revival of the heretical Church of John.
            So, what is the secret teaching Leonardo is promulgating? Historically, it is what we now call a Gnostic gospel. Back then, it was manifest in groups such as the Cathars, who were both gnostic and Manichean; that is, they viewed the material world as lower or evil. As an anti-Rome movement, they opposed political power, meat-eating, and wealth. Gnostics also had a general “gnostic” teaching about spiritual “Light.” Importantly, this idea rejects the need of clergy since individuals can have direct communion and knowledge of God.
            According to the novel, all of this truth-telling is in The Last Supper painting. The author uses historical facts to construct his elaborate symbol structure—relying on utensils on the table and the positions and gestures of Jesus’ disciples—but it is hardly the kind of puzzle ordinary people could decipher.
            In the epilogue, the novel notes that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were, in the 1950s, dug up in ancient pots at the Egyptian site of Nag Hamadi. Father Leyre spent his last years searching for the lost gospels of the Church of John, and he ended up dying in his monk’s cell not far from where they were dug up in the 1950s.
            Of course, all Da Vinci novels are not in search of such religious conspiracy, so this blog will look at the rest of the Leonardo-in-fiction species in Part II at a later date.

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