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Chapter 9: The Code Puts On Artistic Errors

When interviewed for ABC’s "Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci", Brown repeated the character Teabing’s belief that people see what they are told to see: "Our preconceived notions of this scene are so powerful that our mind blocks out the incongruity and overrides our eyes" (243). The person to Jesus’ right, Brown declared, is "clearly a woman", echoing his novel: "It was, without a doubt . . . female" (243). It is ironic that Brown insists that we see what we are told to see–and then tells them what to see. Does that only apply to those who disagree with his claims, or are his remarks held to the same dismissive standard?

The identity of the three apostles to Jesus’ right has never been in doubt. In The Last Supper, Steinberg writes, St. Andrew (from left to right) "is followed by Peter, Judas, and John, the three whose identity in the mural was never doubted." These three have distinctive qualities: Peter’s intense movement forward and wielding of the knife (prefiguring his use of a sword in the Garden), Judas recoiling and grasping the bag of money (he was the treasurer for the group–see Jn 13:29), and John’s youthful appearance and contemplative pose. There is also physical evidence. A parish church of Ponte Capriasca near Lake Lugano contains a mid-sixteenth-century fresco copy of The Last Supper. On that fresco are the names of the twelve apostles, left to right.

The grouping of John, Judas, and Peter is purposeful. The group [of three] at Christ’s right, John, Judas, and Peter", Steinberg points out, "clusters the three who are destined for roles in the Passion." Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies Jesus, and John–"the disciple whom Jesus loved" (Jn 13:23;19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20)–was the only apostle to stand at Jesus’ cross (Jn 19:26-7). Steinberg states that there are also "significant pairs" in the painting, including Peter and John, and Jesus and John. Peter and John are often companions (cf. Lk 22:8), and personify "the active and contemplative life" and are "shown putting their heads together". Hearing the prophecy of impending betrayal, Peter lunges forward, his hot temper and desire to defend his Master evident. John is the quiet, reflective contemplative who internalizes the distressing news, his hands folded in a prayerful manner appropriate to the coming death of Jesus. These two true apostles frame Judas, the traitor, who personifies greed and disloyalty. Although Jesus and John are depicted as being apart from each other, their mirrored images indicate that they are "soulmates . . . matched in outline, in (original) hue of garment and tilt of head."

Viewing a reproduction of the painting, Sophie sees "flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom" (243). The figure is undoubtedly effeminate, as Leonardo depicted the youthful John in the early-sixteenth-century Florentine style. This approach can be seen in other paintings of the period, including Leonardo’s own Saint John the Baptist (c. 1413-16), which depicts a young man who is quite effeminate in appearance and also has flowing hair and delicate hands. As for the "hint of bosom", it can only be found in the feverish imagination of those subscribing to Brown’s theory–Leonardo’s painting reveals no "hint" at all, unless viewers are willing to see what Brown suggests they see, despite lack of visual evidence.

There is no suggestion, in Leonardo’s sketches or writings, that the figure is Mary Magdalene. There is, however, evidence that is the apostle John. In a sketch for the painting, Leonardo depicts John "leaning over, face down; Christ resting one arm on John’s back as he turns toward Judas . . ." Gombrich describes the sketch in detail:

"It is well known that the description of that text of the apostle St John ‘leaning on Jesus’ bosom’ is explained by the ancient habit of lying on couches during meals, though this had largely been forgotten and the apostles were usually represented sitting at table. But tradition still had St John leaning against Christ, and the only rapid sketch we have by Leonardo for this composition indicates that he originally meant to adopt this tradition as well as the action of Christ reaching across the table to give the sop to Judas, who was generally placed there in isolation from the others."
Always searching for a new way to explore character and interrelationships in his paintings, Leonardo opted to show the Apostle John as a mirror image of Christ (for the reasons noted by Steinberg) and to dramatically isolate Christ against the open window behind him.

Teabing states that a "V" shape representing the Grail and the female womb is "at the focal point" of The Last Supper, (244) but this doesn’t hold up to an examination of the painting. The figure of Christ is clearly the focal point of the painting; the entire composition is based around his figure and his silhouetted head. Likewise, the "M" shape (244-5) is a brilliantly conceived compositional motif, with the three open windows providing a field of perspective and sense of depth.