What does The Da Vinci Code have to do with Leonardo’s painting “The Last Supper”?
Several outlandish claims are being made in reference to this famous painting by Dan Brown in his novel, The Da Vinci Code. – here are some examples:
- Dan Brown uses the painting to promote the idea that Da Vinci painted Mary Magdalene into “the last supper”, at the right hand of Jesus: P.243: The person to the right of Jesus is recognized by Sophie in the book as a woman:
“The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt … female”. “That’s a woman!”, exclaimed Sophie.
Brown is fond of saying that we see only what we want to see. Take care to note that Leonardo portrayed other masculine biblical characters with a feminine appearance - in his work Saint John the Baptist (c. 1413-1416)4, St. John the Baptist – a very ruddy character according to biblical records – is depicted as a feminine character with long flowing hair and delicate hands. Is it any surprise that John the Apostle might be depicted in a similar fashion? And if one inspects “The Last Supper” carefully, there is in fact is no hint of a bosom - unless one wants to see that in the painting.
- He further promotes the notion that the “holy grail” is missing from the painting because Leonardo was trying to communicate a secret message – ie., that “the Holy Grail” was not a physical drinking cup, but rather the womb of Mary Magdalene! But why do we expect to see a large chalice emblazoned with the letters “The Holy Grail”? Only if we fall for legend and popular lore. Look closely at the painting, and you will see that Jesus, as well as His followers, all have drinking cups. Jesus’ cup (“the holy grail”) is next to his left hand, while His right hand is extended over a piece of bread.1
First Things First
First, lets get some basic facts straight.
- Leonardo was not at “the last supper”, which occurred some 1,500 years before he was born. He was painting his interpretation, in accordance with his painting style, of what took place at “the last supper”. If we want the facts, we have to go back to the earliest historical records of what transpired – the gospels.
- Leonardo was not a bible scholar, and indeed may have had his own agenda in terms of notions he wanted to portray in his paintings. If we want the facts, we have to go back to the earliest historical records.
- The earliest historical records (the New Testament gospels) record that Jesus and the twelve apostles were present at the last supper. There are also twelve persons at the table in the painting, plus Jesus. There is no indication in the gospel records that Mary Magdalene was present, much less seated at the right hand of Jesus.
- Dan Brown makes the point in his book that the reason people don’t notice that the person in the painting next to Jesus is a woman is because of our “preconceived notions” (p 243). Is it possible that Dan Brown has a preconceived notion about what he wants to see in the painting? Perhaps he sees Mary Magdalene there because he wants to see her there. Perhaps others of us are doing the same thing.
The Gospels Show that Mary Was Not Present at The Last Supper
According to the three synoptic gospels, the twelve apostles were present with Jesus at the last supper. No mention is made of Mary Magdalene or anyone else being present at the supper:
- Matthew 26:20: “Now when evening had come, He sat down withthe twelve.”
- Mark 14:17: “In the evening He came with the twelve. Now as they sat and ate …”
- Luke 22:14: “And when the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him.”
The twelve apostles that appear in the painting “The Last Supper” are listed in Mark 3:16-19 as:
- Simon Peter
- James (son of Zebedee)
- John (the brother of James, surnamed “Son of Thunder”)
- James (the son of Alphaeus)
- Simon the Cananite
- Judas Iscariot
John’s gospel records the last supper activities in John Chapter 13. Although it doesn’t specifically say “the twelve” sat down with Him, as in the synoptic gospels, we may infer from the context that it was the twelve who were present. There is no mention in John’s gospel that Mary Magdalene was present. Here is the sequence of events as recorded in John:
- V2: “supper being ended” — supper wraps up
- V4: [Jesus] “rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.”
- V5-11: Jesus washes his apostles feet
- V12: Jesus sits down again
- V13-17: Jesus explains why He washed their feet – to provide them with an example of what it means to be a servant
- V18-19: Jesus mentions a prophecy concerning the betrayal by Judas that would soon happen
- V 21: Jesus announces the betrayal to those present: “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.”
- V 22: “Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke.”
- V 23-25: These verses show that a male was the one leaning on Jesus’ breast, and that Peter was asking this disciple who it was that Jesus was speaking about: “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” This clearly shows that the person to Jesus right was a male, precluding even the possibility that the person could have been Mary Magdalene.
Who Were The Three Persons to Jesus’ Right?
Noted art critic Leo Steinberg has analyzed Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” in minute detail in his work “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper”. According to Steinberg, the painting suffered from “the impoverishment of its content down to pure psychodrama”.2 Leonardo was painting his interpretation of two key events that the gospels record occurred at “the last supper”- the consecration of the Eucharist, and the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities by Judas.
According to the Dictionary of Art, the consecration of the Eucharist is evident by Christ’s gesture toward the bread and wine, and this would have been readily understood by Leonardo’s contemporaries.3 The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is evident in the way the disciples are depicted. According to Steinberg, St. Andrew (from left to right) is followed by Peter, Judas and John. “the three whose identity in the mural was never doubted”.2 There are distinct qualities about each of these apostles:
- Peter’s intense lurching forward, holding a knife (prefiguring his use of the sword later in the Garden when Jesus was taken
- Judas recoiling and grasping the bag of money (Judas was entrusted with the group’s money – see John 13:29)
- John’s youthful appearance and contemplative pose
According to art critic Steinberg, the grouping of Peter, Judas and John is purposeful. These three had key roles in the Passion of Christ: Judas would later betray Jesus, Peter would deny Him (thrice), and John - “the disciple whom Jesus loved” - was the only Apostle who remained at the cross when Jesus was crucified (John 19:26-27).
Steinberg also notes that there are “significant pairs” portrayed in the painting. For example, Peter and John are depicted as a pair with their heads together, illustrating their close companionship (Peter and John are often mentioned together in the gospels (see Luke 22:8)). This pose depicts their “active and contemplative life”.2 Furthermore, art critics interpret the pose of Peter and John one that connoted trust and intimacy. One observation is that the pose conveys Peter’s surprise, and him asking John to repeat what Jesus has just said, so stunned was the head apostle at the prophecy of betrayal.1
The Evidence Shows That it was Not Mary but a Male Follower
The Da Vinci Code tries to make the case that the Disciple sitting at the right hand of Jesus – which the gospel of John refers to the one “whom Jesus loved” – is non other than Mary Magdalene. We noted above that in John’s gospel, V 23-25, that this person is a male – not a female. So then who is this disciple?
John’s gospel records that it was a male disciple, most probably John – the author of John’s gospel – as the one “whom Jesus loved”:
- John 19:25-27 These two verses describe the people who were at the cross when Jesus was crucified. This group included Mary Magdalene, other women, AND a man referred to as “the disciple whom He loved“: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus Him mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother: “Woman, behold you son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
- John 20:2, 8 Here Mary Magdalene is running back from the empty tomb to tell the news to Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” Again, it is stated that this is a male:V2: “Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved..” V8: “Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed.”
- John 21:7 Here again that disciple is with Peter (the “pair” mentioned above):“Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: “It is the Lord!”
- John 21:20 In this verse it is reiterated that John was the one leaning on Jesus’ breast at the last supper:
“Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said “Lord, who is the one who betrays you?”
Other Da Vinci Code Claims Refuted
Brown claims that the open “V” space between John and Jesus is the focal point of the painting, and represents the Grail and the womb of Mary Magdalene. But upon inspection this does not hold up to scrutiny. Jesus, at the center of the painting and framed by the dramatic backdrop of three windows, is, according to noted art critic Steinberg, clearly “the focal point of the painting”.
- Leonardo was was interpreting in his own style his vision of activities that transpired at the last supper
- It should not surprise us that John, seated to the right of Jesus, was portrayed by Leonardo with long flowing hair and a gentle, if feminine, appearance. Leonardo was known to have painted other biblical characters in a feminine manner.
- The evidence shows that the Leonardo’s The Last Supper was depicting two key activities that were taking place at the time: the consecration of the Eucharist, and the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities by Judas. There is no evidence that it had anything to do with portraying a relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
- There is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was even presentat the last supper. However all three synoptic gospels state that the twelve apostles were with Jesus at the event.
- The “disciple whom Jesus loved” who is depicted as listening to Peter in the painting is referred to as a male in John’s gospel, and thus could not have been Mary Magdalene. Since this same “loved disciple” was present at the cross in addition to Mary Magdalene, this disciple could not have been anyone other that John the apostle.
- The person portrayed to Jesus’ right in Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” painting is non other than the effeminate appearing John the apostle - not Mary Magdalene (although many may wish it to be otherwise).
See The Da Vinci Code Last Supper For Yourself
Link to high resolution of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (with zoom capability):
- Carl. E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, “The Da Vinci Hoax”, by Ignatius. P 261-279.
- Leo Steinberg, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” (New York: Zone Books) 2001
- Turner, “Dictionary of Art”, 19:189
- St. John the Baptist, 1513-16, Panel Musee de Louve, Paris.
- Biblical quotes from the “New Open Bible, New King James Version”, Nelson