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The Mystery of the Mona Lisa’s Smile

December 13, 2004

A look at the claims made by The Da Vinci Code, and a review of Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorised Guide to the Mysteries Behind ‘The Da Vinci Code’ – Edited by Dan Burnstein.

A conspiracy by the Church to suppress the real story of early Christianity, a quest by secret societies to preserve it, Leonardo da Vinci as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, hiding secrets in his paintings: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been the publishing sensation of the year.
The novel – a gripping, fast-paced but sometimes poorly written thriller – alleges that there is a secret hidden in Da Vinci’s paintings: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who was part of an inner tradition that recognised sacred sexuality and the power of the feminine. After the crucifixion, she became leader of the early church, but Peter – jealous of being excluded from the special teachings she received from Jesus – seized control and became the first Pope, forcing her into exile. Mary – possibly bearing Jesus’ child – settled with others in the south of France and started the Merovingian bloodline, which preserved the ‘true’ tradition.

In this tradition, women play a much more central role, and are not maligned as they were by the Church. Mary Magdalene becomes a symbol, not of the fallen woman, the prostitute of the Church smear campaign, but a powerful woman in her own right, lover of Christ and leader of his followers after his death.

After the Merovingians were usurped by the Carolingians, the Priory of Sion was formed to protect this tradition and return the Merovingians to the throne so that the heirs of Christ could reign. Da Vinci was a Grand Master of this über-secret society, and he painted Mary Magdalene into The Last Supper as the disciple on Jesus’ right – usually thought to be John. But a close look at the painting shows ‘John’ has long hair and breasts….

In the novel, right wing Catholic organisation Opus Dei tries everything in its power to keep this hidden, while the Priory tries to expose it.

It is these ‘revelations’ that have caught people’s attention. Even though our societies are increasingly secular, they are built on a fundamentally Christian framework. Anything that challenges this viewpoint threatens to rewrite our whole history and give us a very different picture of who we are and who we could have been.

The history of Christianity – and by extension, of our society – is being dramatically rewritten by discoveries this century of the Dead Sea scrolls and the finding in 1945 of a number of Gnostic texts near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. These reveal that in the early years of the Christian faith there were many gospels, and that doctrinal orthodoxy was less important than the right of people to have their own experience of spirituality – something suggested by a line spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is inside you, what is inside you will save you.”

Over time – and particularly since the council of Nicea in AD325 ruled on what was Christianity and what was heresy – this rich tradition was replaced with an official, sanctioned interpretation.

A number of books are available this Christmas for people who couldn’t get enough of The Code. Some are better than others: The theory that Da Vinci hid secrets in his paintings was first developed by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in The Templar Revelation. This book is a classic of speculative archeology, makes a fairly convincing case and is interesting reading. It certainly gets you looking at those familiar art works again.

Elaine Pagels’ classic The Gnostic Gospels is well worth reading for any serious student of the origins of Christianity. The Jesus of these gospels comes across as more mystical and pantheist than the version we have from Mel Gibson’s recent movie. “Lift a rock and you will find me”, he says in the Gospel of Thomas. “Split a piece of wood and I am there”. The Gospel of Philip has him kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth, suggesting that they have a special relationship.

But by far the most useful book is Secrets of the Code, edited by Dan Burnstein. It is a wonderful compendium of scholarly articles and intelligent speculation about Da Vinci, Mary Magdalene, early Christianity and Gnosticism. It includes the full text of the Gnostic gospels, as well as interviews and articles by Pagels, Picknett and Price and a number of other authorities. It also includes critiques from the Church, and debate taken from Internet forums. It mentions that the Jesus story – god-man born of a virgin, martyred and resurrected – is several centuries older than Christianity and occurs in a number of Middle Eastern religions. It examines The Code as a novel, and includes a chapter called ‘Plot holes in The Da Vinci Code’. It’s a long chapter.

The book is well edited and is presented as a reader for those intrigued by the claims made in Brown’s book. Short excerpts from the most important books on the subject mean you can dip in and form your own opinion quickly, without having to wade through pages of argument.

If you haven’t read The Da Vinci Code yet, and you can get past the cardboard characters, wooden dialogue and plot holes you can park a Boeing in, do so – if only so you know what all the fuss is about. If you read the book, and were intrigued by the suggestions it makes, then make Secrets of the Code your holiday reading and find out the mystery behind the Mona Lisa’s smile.

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