The Da Vinci Code Decoded
Before discussing Leonardo Da Vinci, His paintings, and/or, any coded messages contained therein, a bit of background analysis is necessary.
While over 60% of the Americans claim to believe in the fundamental truths of Christianity; the Virgin Birth, Physical Resurrection, and Divinity of Jesus (Washington Times, Dec. 21, 2003), Dan Brown's blasphemous novel, The Da Vinci Code with 60 million copies in print, is a runaway best seller. It has been, and continues #1 on the New York Times list of best sellers. The theme is simple. It is about an alleged sexual relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene and the perfidy of the Catholic Church in covering up this relationship through the centuries. For the educated Christian reader this sort of writing is simply ludicrous and serious rebuttals have been written. The book, however, has obviously struck a chord in the collective imagination of a large segment of the population. Its appeal, in fact, does not, however, stop at our shores. The Da Vinci Code has, to date, been translated into 35 languages. Now a major movie, based on the novel, has been released to the public.
What is the appeal of this fantasy? It would appear that as the virile faith of traditional Christianity wanes, that of its ancient adversaries waxes. "For there will come a time when they will not endure sound doctrine; but having itching ears, will heap up to themselves teachers according to their own lusts, and forsaking the truth will turn aside to fables." 2 Timothy 2-5
Thus, rather than simply pointing out Mr. Brown’s blatant falsifications of history, it behooves us to analyze the "fables" that he proposes. The faith of Leonardo Da Vinci will be discussed at the end of this article.
There are three separate themes jumbled together in this book. First is the
claim that the royal line of King David passed to
Harvard professor Harold Bloom, in his 1992 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post Christian Nation proclaimed that the "self-concealed core of American Religion' is "Orphic, Gnostic, Millenarian." In a more recent work (1996), Omens of Millennium, he quotes Adeous Huxley as defining Gnosis as the "perennial philosophy that is concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds." He then goes on to assert that at the core of Gnosticism is the belief in a radically transcendent God who is not the Creator. "The world we live in imprisons both the transcendent God and the divine spark in human beings. The goal of life is to escape the created order through the knowledge (Greek gnosis) of the deepest self revealed by an alien messenger." (Emphasis added) 1
Gnosis, or knowledge, as understood in Gnostic religious systems, thus does not refer to rational understanding of natural or supernatural reality, but involves awareness through illumination, intuition, initiation or induced trance that the human spirit is consubstantial with the divine ground of being.
Gnostic traditions have existed in the East since antiquity and certainly had entered into Western thought before the time of Christ. It was, in fact, Christianity darkest adversary and denounced as such in the writings of such orthodox Catholic writers as Justin Martyr, Tertulian, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome more than a hundred years before Constantine ever dreamed of a Christian Empire ( Pace Mr. Brown.) Typical of these early writings of the Fathers, as early as the 3rd century Hippolytus quoted the following Gnostic text as the core of their doctrine and the most pernicious and diabolical of heresies:
"Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort... Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own way and says, `My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.' Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love hate...If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him [god] in yourself," 2
Historically the foundations of Gnosticism are clouded in mystery. Ion Couliano, in his The Tree of Gnosis makes the case that Western Gnosticism finds its roots in Orphism. He states that, according to the Orphics who flourished in Greece during, if not prior to, the fourth century BC, there was a time before history when the preternatural giants or Titans rebelled against the gods and murdered and devoured one of them, Dionesius. In revenge of this deicide, Zeus destroyed the rebellious Titans with a thunderbolt and Humankind was born from their ashes. We humans, therefore, have a divine seed within us as we contain the fragments of the (divine) Dionesius swallowed by the Titans that was residual in their ashes. 3 In order to re-establish union with the divine source, Orphic ideology and practice entailed world rejection and devaluation of the body, reincarnation and vegetarianism. There is little doubt that the Orphic mysteries had some influence on Plato and much more so on later Neoplatonists with their doctrine of metemsomatosis or entrapment of spirit in matter. 4 The Gnostic heresy denounced by the Church Fathers; Ireneus, Justin Martyr and Hippolytus et al, would appear to be, in fact, a curios mix of Jewish scriptures, Talmudic lore, the Christian apostolic tradition, and the Orphic Neoplatonism described above. It has also been suggested that Gnostic religion draws, to some degree, on the Greek concept of hypostatization (personification) of concepts or abstract generative entities which function as archai, or governors of our cosmos. Together these hypostases (personifications) make up the Pleroma„ or fullness of being as opposed to the Kenoma or void. 5 Strange as this last hypothesis may sound, these "governors" or "Decans" appear with certain frequency in Italian High Renaissance art.
These speculations have been corroborated by the discovery in 1945 of a
series of papyrus texts that had belonged to a flourishing Egyptian Gnostic
community near the town of
Although there are many variants, the fundamental gnostic mythos, as denounced by the Church Fathers, is confirmed by the Nag Hammadi texts. It is as follows: Beyond the God of Scripture there is an anonymous and fundamentally impersonal "God beyond God" where all opposites ( hot-cold, male- female, good - evil, etc.) are reconciled. This "God," or fullness of being, called the Pleroma, is generally divided into 30 spiritual entities called Aeons which exist in syzygy or paired opposition. They are the uncreated forces of the cosmos. The lowest or last of the Aeons is an unpaired feminine being called Sophia (Wisdom) through whom the created order comes into existence. ( It can hardly be a coincidence that the heroine of Dan Brown’s Davinci Code is named Sophie, the French variant of Sophia)
The Nag Hammadi text; Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of Sophia as the feminine divine power:
I am the first and the last I am the honored one and the scorned one I am the whore and the holy one I am the wife and the virgin... I am the barren one, and many are her sons I am the silence and the incomprehensible I am the utterance of my own name... 7
Another text , Trimorphic Protenoia (Tripple-formed primal thought) puts these words in the mouth of Sophia:
"[I] am [Protonoia the] Thought that [dwells] in [the Light] ... [She who exists] before the All... I move in every creature... I am the invisible one within the all. "
"I am androgenous. [I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate with myself]...and with those who love me... I am the Womb [that gives shape] to the All...I am Me[iroth]ea, the glory of the Mother." 8
A third variant, again from a Nag Hammadi text, the Apocalypse of Adam speaks of the same basic theme:
"..from the nine Muses, one (Sophia) separated away. She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous. She fulfilled her desire, and became pregnant from her desire." 9
The result of Sophia's frustrated desire or self infatuation, no matter which text one follows, is, according to Gnostic tradition, a male abortive creature, Proarchon (First Ruler) or Demiurge. The Demiurge, unaware of his divine provenance, believes himself to be alone and brings forth from himself emmanations which are Archons (Rulers) like himself, to whom he boasts "I am God and no one exists beside me!" At this point, according to both Irenaeus and The Nag Hammadi Apocryphon of John, Sophia calls out from above and says, "You are wrong, Samael! (God of the blind) and to prove it, stretched forth her finger and introduced light into matter." 10 "It was because he was foolish and ignorant of his mother that he said I am God; there is none beside me." 11
It is obvious from the above, that with all its complicated theogony, the root purpose of all Gnostic argumentation was to establish a maternal source prior to the male Creator God of the Old Testament. In fact, virtually all the Gnostic sects identify the Demiurge with the Hebrew YAHWEH 12 whom some called Ialdabaoth, most likely a corruption of the Aramaic yalda behût "Son of Shame. 13 For the Gnostic, then, the Hebrew God YAHWEH is the miscreant son of the "whore and holy one" Sophia and the personification of Evil, and matter is considered to be the coagulation of the primal anguish, fright, pain and ignorance experienced by Sophia in giving him birth. 14
There are many and varied Gnostic myths regarding the creation of man, however, there is an overall similarity in their presentation. For instance the Nag Hammadi text, On the Origin of the World states:
After the day of rest, Sophia [literally, " wisdom"] sent Zoe [literally, "life"], her daughter, who is called Eve, as an instructor to raise up Adam...When Eve saw Adam cast down, she pitied him and she said "Adam live! Rise up upon the earth!"... When he saw her he said, " you will be called 'mother of the living,' because you are the one who gave me life." 15
Another text unearthed at Nag Hamadi, The Hypostasis of the Archons gives a similar account:
"And the spirit endowed Woman came to [Adam] and spoke with him saying, "Arise, Adam." And when he saw her, he said, "It is you who have given me life; you shall be called "Mother of the living" ... Then the Female Spiritual principle came in the snake, the Instructor, and taught them, saying, "...you shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this to you. Rather your eyes shall be open, and you shall become like gods, recognizing evil and good.".... And the arrogant ruler cursed the Woman...[and] the snake." 16 (Emphasis added)
Thus, as there is no "Fall from grace" or "Original Sin" for the Gnostic, Jesus is not a redeemer (totally unnecessary) but a spiritual Aeon sent by Sophia to instruct men as to their divine nature. 17 Whereas virtually all the Gnostic traditions, denounced by the Church Fathers, accepted the crucifixion event as a historic fact, they deny that the Aeon Jesus suffered death. Some claimed that it was Simon of Cyrene who died on the cross, as in the Second treatise of the Great Seth, 18 while others claimed that Jesus only appeared to die and that those present who were illuminated with the "spiritual eye" saw the real numinous Jesus next to the cross either smiling or laughing. The latter view is related in the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter:
"Who is this one above the cross who is glad and laughing?... He whom you saw glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute." 19
There is, however, an apparent paradox in the Gnostic tradition regarding the true spirituality of the "Living Jesus" as the so-called Gospel of Philip imputes a physical attraction to Mary Magdalen, "...the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalen [but Christ loved ] her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]." 20 The general tradition, however, identifies the Magdalen as "The one who knows all" a clear identification with the Aeon Sophia. 21
As the real "spiritual" Jesus did not die, belief in the physical resurrection, for the Gnostic, is the "faith of fools." 22 The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event in the past, instead it symbolized how Christ's liberating presence could be experienced spiritually in the present. For example, the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter recounts how he did not actually see but perceived a vision of the Risen Lord who Proclaimed, "I am the intellectual spirit, filled with radiant light." 23
Following the theorizing of the distinct Gnostic apologists as laid out above, Ioan Coulianos, in his The Tree of Gnosis, drew the conclusion that the whole hermeneutic of Gnosis is an "Inverse exegesis" of the Bible starting from Genesis. All started in the Garden where the Serpent and Cain, true representatives of the Pleroma, planted the seed of "revolution" into a world dominated by the laws of the evil Demiurge. Some moving forward to the New Testament name Judas as, "The only one among the apostles to know the truth and fulfill the mystery of treason." 24 (See recently published Gospel of Judas)
Fundamentally, then, Gnosticism is an age-old religious movement that eschews Divine law as presented in the Biblical tradition, and natural law as found in Aristotle and Aquinas . It likewise repudiates hierarchical power structures and authority in general. In its most elemental aspect, Gnosticism replaces the Male - assertive - intellectual - authoritative - conscious- Word (Logos) with a Female - rebellious - intuitive - passionate - unconscious - image (Sophia). The Gnostic adept, therefore, while rejecting outside authority, relies on direct intuitive contact with a supposed immanent androgynous ground of being, via mystical experience and/or, Professor Bloom suggests, revelations by "an alien messenger" who speaks from within.
The worship of antinomian "Mother Nature" has never been far from
the surface in literature. Dormant during the Christian hegemony provided by
In his 1782 treatise Die Natur, Goethe wrote "Nature! We are surrounded and enveloped by her - unable to step outside her, unable to get into her more deeply. Un-asked and unwarned, she takes us up into the circle of her dance and carries us along till we are wearied and fall from her arms...Men are all in her and she in all...Even the most unnatural is Nature , even the crudest pedantry still has at touch of her genius...Life is her fairest invention, death but her artifice whereby to have much life... All is there in her always. She knows not past or future. Present is her eternity. And she is good and I praise her in all her works." 25
In the final chapter of The Da Vinci Code , the hero, Langdon, having outwitted the minions of Opus Dei - read Traditional Catholicism- reveals the "secret" of the mysterious verse on the papyrus handed down through the ages by the supposed generations of "Magdalen" devotees:
"The Holy Grail 'neath ancient Roslyn waits.
The Blade and Chalice guarding o'er Her gates
Adorned in masters loving art, She lies.
She rests at last beneath the skies."
In a flash of intuition Langdon, states that the "blade" Λ represents the "masculine" and the "chalice" V represents the "feminine" and that worn in over the empty vault of Rroslyn Chapel are the footprints of countless cultist pilgrims forming on the floor, the union of these two symbols. It is the "Seal of Solomon" A, the ancient Gnostic symbol for "Sacred Sex." The riddle thus solved, the hero falls to his knees and hears, "a woman's voice...the wisdom of the ages...whispering up from the chasms of the earth." That's the end of the story.
This interpretation follows closely the thought of Carl Jung as presented in
his 1935 Tavistock Lectures wherein he presented an analysis of the
dream of a patient whom later committed suicide. Jung, with Gnostic leanings
himself, takes the symbolism from the physical to the spiritual realm. In the
dream the man visits the cathedral of
Thus, the "Seal of Solomon" stands for more than just sexual union in the Gnostic system, especially Jewish Gnosis or Kabbalah. It represents the union of all opposites, male - female, sky -earth, good - evil, conformity - rebellion, and ultimately the restitution of all in all in the "One God" beyond God, the Ayn Sof from which all sprang by emanation and to which all will return.
So much for the "theology" of Dan Brown’s fantasy novel. Now we may turn to the protagonist of the title.
Was Leonardo DaVinci, as proclaimed by Brown, an adept of some secret society? Given that secret societies are, in fact secret, we probably will never know for sure. What is known is that, as recounted by the Renaissance biographer, Vasari, Leonardo only embraced the Catholic Faith a few years before his death in 1519. There is speculation that he may have been involved with various heretical "speculative" movements that were fashionable at that time.
Does his painting of the Last Supper, as he claims, contain an allusion to Mary Magdalen? Definitely not in its original form. (seen by this author). It is, however, a mysterious painting that is open to various interpretations. The most often cited "occult" interpretation (e.g. Rudolf Steiner) is not a reference to the Magdalene, but that there are, in fact Two "Christ figures" – the central figure in the red robe and serene (androgynous) visage and the figure seated to his left dressed in brownish green, showing astonishment, anger, and contempt. Directly between the two a hand points heavenward with an extended index finger, suggesting that the "Twin" polar opposites – love and hate – good and evil- are reconciled in the Eucharist.
Another examples of Leonardo’s art wherein the meaning and symbolic structure may be of more interest than the splendid technique is the well known drawing titled The Virgin and Child with St. Ann. Executed in 1498-9 as a cartoon (preparatory sketch) for a larger commissioned work. It is one of the most enigmatic pictures in art history and has been the object of multitudinous critiques, commentaries and evaluations. In his 1939 biography of Leonardo, Kenneth Clark took the then prevailing formalist view, and described this picture as, "the contrast of interlocking rhythms enclosed within a single shape." While stating that the overall desired shape sought by Leonardo is the pyramid, Lord Clark wondered out loud why the two female heads at the top are in equilibrium rather than the aesthetically more correct ascending order. On the whole, however, Clark brushes off any inconsistencies within his own preconceived notion of what the picture is about and equates the picture to a masterpiece by Bach were one may always find: " ...new facilities of movement and harmony, growing more and more intricate, yet subordinate to the whole." 27 In the 1967 edition of this same book, Lord Clark modified his aesthetic critique of Leonardo's work by saying that he had tried too hard to separate Leonardo the artist from Leonardo the man, in regard to this picture. He then added what he called a profound and beautiful interpretation by Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, Leonardo spent the first years of his life with his natural mother, the peasant Caterina. Leonardo's father, Ser Piero, however, after his marriage a year later to another woman, which turned out to be fruitless, eventually brought his love child to be reared by his lawful wife. Thus, according to Freud, Leonardo had two mothers, both of whom he loved, and hence the equilibrium of the two female heads at the top of this composition. Leonardo has, again according to Freud, unconsciously produced two mysteriously smiling faces of approximately the same age emerging from what strangely appears to be one body. 28
Without questioning the intellectual integrity of Lord Clark or Sigmund Freud, for that matter, I invite the reader to carefully study this picture for its visual content and then consider once again its title. In this picture there are at the top the two smiling female heads as witnessed by Dr. Freud, and they do, in fact, appear to emerge from a single mass or body. There are also two semi naked children who not only appear to be of the same age, but who bear a striking resemblance to each other. They could almost be identical twins except that the one on the left has shorter hair, a broad forehead and a more intense expression. In contrast, the child fully to the right with his massive curls, leaning languidly on his elbow, has a more passive sentimental posture and look. Between the two children, closer to the child at the right a hand with index finger extended points heavenward. This hand visually links the female head toward to the right (stage left) (St. Anne?), to the child at stage left.(John the Baptist?) Now think of the title, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. According to Christian tradition, St. Anne was historically the mother of the Virgin Mary and should therefore be rendered at least fifteen years her senior. One may, of course, accept Freud's theory but it does not explain the children. If Freud is right and there are unconscious sublimations contained in this picture, who does the child at the right represent and why is he there? According to the title one assumes he is John the Baptist. Why, however, would the ascetic John the Baptist be represented, even as a child, as a baleful languid twin of the Christ Child? Leonardo was well acquainted with the biblical traditions and certainly had the technical ability to portray what so ever he wished to portray.
If the pictorial content does not appear to coincide with the official title given the picture by the painter himself, what then is this picture all about? Regarding the two heads emerging from the one body, look again at these faces. The face on the left, (stage right) theoretically Mary, is all sweetness and light. The one, toward the right (stage left), theoretically Mary's mother, not only appears the same age but, in fact, is physically a mirror image of Mary. She has, however, a dark and sinister mien. She smiles but it is not the gentle smile of motherly goodness; it is a quizzical, almost threatening smile.
This single bodied but double natured woman, appears as both good and evil, the mother of life but also the destroyer, like the Hindu goddess Kali, who gives birth to all, but also drinks the blood of her victims from their own skulls. Does she not represent here Mother Nature, the macrocosm, in which all opposites exist?
And the children? Instead of Jesus and John, could they not just as well be identified with Castor and Pollux, the twins born of Zeus and Leda the fruit of unnatural lust in the pagan myth (equally well known to Leonardo) or, perhaps, the Gemini, the twins of astrological lore who represent the fundamental duality of the cosmos?
The one on the left, with his composure and Apollonian reason appears to be blessing the unruly left hand, or Dionesiac twin side of his very own nature. As neither Leonardo nor his contemporaries have left us written explanations, the answer is, of course, a matter of speculation. However, given an understanding of Renaissance theology, and the basic right-left, up-down form of symbolic expression we have elsewhere examined, it would appear that the woman toward stage left with her "facia nigra" as representative of the dark "occult" forces, is pointing upward to tell the initiated viewer that both the light and dark, or good and evil forces of nature, the macrocosm, come from God and that through the coincidentia oppositorum or the resolution of opposites, man, the microcosm, will return thence - (apokatastasis)-.
The famous painting of
Did he and other Renaissance artists, often use Pagan, Gnostic or Occult imagery in their art? Yes, without doubt. See: Universal Symbols - part 2, at www.agdei.com
Does any of the above detract from the role of Leonardo Da Vinci as a universal genius and perhaps the greatest painter of all human history? Not at all.
In conclusion, Dan Brown has spun a page-turning novel out of very old and apocryphal Gnostic myths. These include: The existence of a divine feminine principal – Nature; a divine humanity unaware of its true source – the Gnostic god that is the source of both good and of evil; and finally that the God, Yahweh, (He who is) of the orthodox Biblical tradition, especially as presented by the Roman Catholic Church (Holy Mother Church) is a mean spirited misogynous God who will not allow humanity to fulfill its divine potential through ecstatic sexual rituals, exemplified by a purported liaison between Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
As G. K. Chesterton foretold, once people cease to believe in the true God, it’s not that they will believe in nothing, but that they will believe in anything at all.
H.R.A. Revised April. 2006
1) Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post
Christian Nation,(New York: Simonand Shuster, 1992). Omens of
Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection. (
2) Hipolytus, REF 8.15.1-2. Refutationis Omnium Haeresium cit. Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) intro. XIX
3) Ion Couliano The Tree of Gnosis (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992) p. 57
4) ibid., p. 108 See also, source references, Plato,Republic VII.514a; Timaeus 30b; 41a-e; 42a; Phaedrus 249e; Plotinus' Enneads IV.8.2; V.II etc.)
5) H. S. Wiesner cit. Couliano p. 70
6)J.M. Robinson, "The Jung Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly, in Religious Studies Review" 3.1 (January 1997)17-30
7) Thunder Perfect Mind 13.16-16.25, in NHL 271 -274 cit. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels p.55
8)Trimorpfic Protenoia 35.1-24 in NHL 461-462 ibid cit. Pagels
9) Apocalypse of Adam 81:2-9 ibid. cit 54
10) Hypostasis of the Archons 94.21 -95.7 in NHL 158, ibid. cit 58
11) As quoted By Ireneaus in Adversus Haeresis, I.5.4 , REF 6.33 ibid cit. 57
12) Carpocrates: Iren. I.25.4 = Hipp.VI32.4; Ophites: Iren. I.30; Valentians: Hipp. VI.33; Theodotus:Clem. Exc.. 49.1; Archeontes: Epiph. 40.5.1; Docetists: Hipp. IX.6. etc. cit. Couliano p. 95
13) Mathew Black, An Aramaic Etymology of Ialdaboth?, cit. Couliano p. 96
14) Irenaeus, I.54 ibid., Couliano p. 77
15) On the Origen of the World 115.31 -116.8 in NHL 172, cit. Pagels p.30
16) Hypostasis of the Archons , 89.11-91.1 in NHL 154-155, ibid., Pagels p.31
17) Acts of John 89 in NT Apocrypha II, 225 ibid., Pagels p. 73
18) Second treatise of the Great Seth 56.6-19 in NHL 332, ibid., p. 73
19) Apocalypse of Peter 81.4-24 in NHL 344, ibid., 72
20) Gospel of Philip, 63.32-64.5 in NHL 138. This quote (considered suspect by many due to its damaged condition)
21) Dialogues of the Savior, 139.12-13 in NHL 235
22) Origen, Commentarium in I Corinthins, in Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909) 46-47, ibid., cit. Pagels
23) Apocalypse of Peter 83.8-10, in NHL 344, ibid., cit. Pagels
24) Couliano, p. 121
25) Wolgang Frederich Von Goethe, in Rudolf Steiners Naturwissenshaftliche
Schriften (Vol. 34, p. 1) (Verlag, Dornach,[Switzerlad] 1972). Quoted in
26) C,G. Jung, Analytical Psychology, Its Theory & Practice. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) pp.125 - 138
27) Kenneth Clark, Leonardo Da Vinci (New York: Penguin, 1967) p.136
28) ibid. 137