Consider yourself officially blogged into the Humanities Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Dan Brown’s contemporary novel, The DaVinci Code blends the lines between fact and fiction and builds a case against one of humanity’s most widely believed truths, the deification of Jesus Christ. Using well written explanations of Renaissance art, Brown manipulates his readers and not only validates his ekphrastic writing skills but the effectiveness of the technique in altering perception as well.
As early as the first chapter of the book Brown begins to set the stage for his greatest deception by introducing false information about the Goddess Venus of Roman mythology. Placement of Botticelli’s painting, The Birth of Venus, near accompanying ekphrastic text allows Brown the smoke screen necessary to distract readers and grants him the opportunity to reconstruct mythology as well as Botticelli’s art. The narrative describes a sexually charged Pagan Goddess linked to the worship of nature. This ideal stands completely juxtaposed to the beloved likeness of the Virgin Mary generally considered the true inspiration of Botticelli’s work. Brown over-steps the truth dramatically on page 42, when he specifically relates the symbolic Olympic Rings to a fictitious pentacle-shaped-path traced by the planet Venus across the sky every eight years. Even the shortest internet search reveals their true symbolic nature as representations of the five continents but, intertwined into the fictitious history of Botticelli’s painting Brown’s iconology becomes plausible. The author successfully breaks the line between truth and lie early in the story essentially presenting the history of female sexuality in terms of supernatural rituals. These invented attributes are necessary to support a coming mystery based on ideas presented in the Gnostic Gospels including a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Any previously held beliefs of a divine feminine archetype have at this point been disrupted.
Perhaps the worst alterations of truth in the novel are the writer’s unkind portrayals of both the art work and personal life of Leonardo DaVinci. Brown mixed verifiable art history with conjecture when he accurately named the painting technique sfumato as the method employed by Leonardo to construct the Mona Lisa, however he untruthfully asserted it was the favored piece of the artist with no historical evidence. The book detailed Leonardo’s use of perspective by expounding on a supposed
preference by the artist for feminine principles and further assembled a misleading belief of the painter’s wish to balance the elements of male and female within his works. The last betrayal to the historic significance of the world’s most famous painting came on page 125 when the author inferred that Leonardo had intended the work as a self-portrait perhaps due to his homosexuality. Brown made use of Leonardo’s custom of portraiture whereby younger men were seen with long hair and smooth faces, a technique based in realism and bearing no connection to transgendered identities. Although there was no documented evidence offered in support of the falsehoods, they became believable because of the certainty used to deliver them and the long-held sense of intrigue surrounding the painting since its theft from the Louvre in 1911. It is now known the image is a young Italian Nobel woman painted on commission by Leonardo, at the request of her husband. Brown’s ruses are meant to confuse and in turn lead the reader to glean a relationship between the woman in the painting and an “androgynous…. anagram of the divine union of male and female” (Brown 128). Again we are shown a necessary distortion of the female mystic central to constructing the history needed to support Brown’s plot.
In the story Leonardo is a member of The Priory of Scion, a secret organization sworn to protect the Holy Grail or chalice from which Christ drank the night before his execution on the cross. Brown hypothesizes that there are clues hidden in some of the artist’s most famous paintings which will show the not only the sacred artifact’s site but a revelation as to its true identity. In order to fully severe the image of the Madonna as the vessel in which God planted the seed of divinity; Brown uses The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo. The writer intentionally skews the truth to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary seen threatening an infant John the Baptist. The DaVinci Code depends on its ability to reverse long-held systems of belief and by switching around the subjects of the painting the author offers his readers tangible proof of his discovery. Benefiting from antiquity’s most accepted figure of Mary embracing the Christ child the switch appears completely truthful.
Dan Brown achieves his goal in The Da Vinci Code and makes effective use of ekphrasis albeit the untruthfulness of its content. Immediately after revealing the Holy Grail as the woman responsible for ensuring the bloodline of Christ, Brown exploits his readers’ lack of art history and uses Leonardo’s work The Last Supper, to name Mary Magdalene as not only the wife of Christ but the mother of his child. Pointing the characters in the book along with his readers to the face of the person seated to the right of Christ, Brown once again takes advantage of Leonardo’s penchant for realistic illustrations. When describing the figure as having, “flowing red hair, delicate folded hands and the hint of a bosom” Brown is offering his audience part truth and part fantasy (252). Brown misuses the term for partial blindness, “scotoma” as a reasonable explanation for the oversight of the obvious. Contriving a medical explanation serves to relieve everyone involved of fault for failure to notice a discernible truth and builds a sense of camaraderie between the storyteller and his audience. This revelation represents the plot’s definitive moment and the ultimate unraveling of Christ’s purity; it completes the story’s intended deception. Improperly identified as an ordinary fresco, there is no mention of either the experimental oil paint or the dry plaster used in work’s creation both of which necessitated numerous restorations. The author’s assertion that once the original paint was uncovered the secret message of the artist was revealed, is therefore subsequently proven false. By causing readers to wonder along with the characters, if indeed the image is of a woman and not the Apostle John the author successfully challenges sacred religious values.
So skilled is Brown’s use of ekphrastic writing that even cherished spiritual truths are not safe from his mutilation of fact. The most important lesson learned from this novel is how powerful language combined with image is when forming what we assume true. If the history of the Bible and the works of Leonardo, Botticelli and Roman mythology were so creativity questioned what else have we been made to believe through the clever use of words?
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code Special Illustrated Edition. Ed. Double Day. First Edition. Random House, 2004. Print.
Cleo Brag. “Davinci Code Fact vs Fiction.” 27 August 2009. Slide Share. scholarly compilation. 10 April 2013. <http://www.slideshare.net/cleobrag/da-vinci-code-facts-vs-fiction>.
Leonardo Da Vinci Org. Leonardo Da Vinci The Complete Works. 2003-2013. web site. 10 April 2013. <http://www.leonardoda-vinci.org/the-complete-works-6-48-3-2.html>.
The Olympic Museum. “The Olympic Symbols.” n.d. Olympics.org. text. 25 April 2013. <http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_1303.pdf>.
U of North Carolina at Greensboro. Lesson 5: The Most Famous Painting in the World (cont)-Part1. 2004. Internet Essay. 23 March 2013. <http://web.uncg.edu/dcl/courses/paint/theme1/lesson5part1.asp>.