Monday, 8 October 2012

The Last Supper
Hidden meanings and symbols

Dan Brown in his popular thriller The Da Vinci Code suggests that Leonardo's The Last Supper has a number of hidden meanings and symbols. In the fictional story there is conspiracy by the early church to suppress the importance of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' followers (the story suggests - to the distress of many believers - that she was his wife). Supposedly Leonardo was the head of a secret order of men who knew the truth about Magdalene and attempted to preserve it. One of the ways Leonardo did this was to leave clues in his famous work in The Last Supper.
The painting depicts the last Passover dinner Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. Leonardo attempts to capture the moment when Jesus announces he will be betrayed and that one of the men at the table will be his betrayer. The most significant clue left by Leonardo, according to Brown, is that the disciple usually identified as John in the picture is actually Mary Magdalene. Indeed, a quick look at the painting seems to confirm this. The person to Jesus' right has long hair and smooth skin with what might be regarded as feminine features compared to the older, rougher-looking apostles around them. Brown also points out, through the characters in his story, that Jesus and the figure to his right together form the outline of the letter "M." Does it stand for Mary or perhaps Matrimony? Are these clues left by Leonardo about his secret knowledge?
Despite our first impression that the figure in the picture is feminine, the question is whether the figure would have looked feminine to a viewer of the era in which Leonardo painted it. Probably it would have not. John was considered to be the youngest of the disciples and as such he was often portrayed as being a beardless youth with soft features and long hair. We translate this today as being female, but back in Florence in the fifteen century, which was a different culture with different expectations of what it is to be feminine and masculine, that wouldn't necessarily have been the case. Leonardo was only one of a number of artists, including Ghirlandio and Andrea del Castagno, who pictured St. John in this manner. In hisTreatise on Painting, Leonardo explains that characters in a painting should be depicted based on their types. These types might include a "wise man" or an "old woman" each with their own characteristics: beard, wrinkles, short or long hair. John as pictured in The Last Supper is a "student" type: A protégé who has not yet matured. Artists of this day, including Leonardo, would have portrayed this "student type" as a very young man with soft features just as we see in the painting.

The figure to the left of Jesus (to the right in this image). Is it John or Mary?
As for the outline of the "M" in the picture, this is a result of the way the artist composed the picture. Jesus, at the time he announces his betrayal, sits alone in the center of the painting, his body in the shape of a pyramid and the disciples in groups on either side. Leonardo favored this pyramid design and often used it in his works.
The Priory
Supposedly Leonardo was the leader of a secret group called the Priory of Sion. According to The Da Vinci Code, it was the Priory's mission to keep the secret of Mary Magdalene and her marriage to Jesus alive. While The Da Vinci Code is fiction, it is based on theories from a controversial "non-fiction" book entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in the early 1980's.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail cites the evidence for Leonardo's membership in the secret Priory of Sion as a number of documents deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. While there is some evidence that an order of monks with this name existed as far back as 1116 A.D., there is little to suggest that the medieval group had anything to do with the Priory of Sion of the 20th century.
The documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale supporting the existence of the Priory actually are there, but they appear to be part of a hoax conceived by a man named Pierre Plantard in the 1950's. Plantard and a group of like-minded friends with right wing and anti-Semitic leanings formed the Priory. By fabricating and planting the documents, including fake genealogical tables, Plantard apparently hoped to show that he was a descendant of the Merovingians and an heir to the French throne. The document purporting to show Leonardo, along with such luminaries as Botticellie and Isaac Newton as grand masters of the group, was fake as well.
It is unclear whether Plantard also tried to perpetuate the Mary Magdalene story as well. It is known that he claimed the Priory did possess a treasure. Not a set of invaluable documents as suggested in The Da Vinci Code, but a collection of sacred objects inscribed on a copper scroll found with the Dead Sea scrolls in the 1950's. Plantard told interviewers that the Priory would return this treasure to Israel when "the time was right." Experts are divided on wheather the treasure mentioned in the copper scroll ever really existed Even if it did, there is no evidence that any group has control of it today.
The fact that Leonardo wasn't the grand master of a clandestine society as pictured in The Da Vinci Code shouldn't lesson our admiration for him, however. While the inclusion of this historical personage in a work of modern fiction is intriguing, we should not allow it to cloud our vision of what Leonardo really did accomplish. His art works have been an inspiration to millions down through the centuries and contain intricacies that experts are still trying to unravel. In addition, his experiments and inventions have shown him to be an advanced thinker whose explorations went far beyond that of his contemporaries. The secret of Leonardo Da Vinci is that he was a genius that few people in his own century appreciated


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