File under: Oh, now you tell us!

The New York Times reviews the new book, Leonardo and The Last Supper, authored by Ross King, and alerts the world to this little news flash:

Mr. King deftly situates the painting in a historical context — against political events in Italy at the time, religious attitudes of the day and contemporaneous developments in art — and also places it in the context of Leonardo’s career, deconstructing the ways the painter broke with tradition and stamped a familiar and much depicted subject with his distinctive vision.

There isn’t much that’s substantially new in the book — Mr. King appears to draw heavily on the work of Mr. Clark and other Leonardo experts, like Martin Kemp, as well as on Leonardo’s writings — but he does a fluent and insightful job of weaving together all his research.

On several much-debated issues, Mr. King does not hesitate to serve up his opinions. He asserts that the girlish-looking figure sitting on Jesus’ right is John — not Mary Magdalene, as a character in Dan Brown’s best seller “The Da Vinci Code” famously argued. John, Mr. King contends, was traditionally portrayed as “a youthful and slightly feminine figure among his mostly bewhiskered and older companions.”

He says that one of Leonardo’s sketches played with “the idea of placing John asleep on Christ’s breast” — the way he was often traditionally depicted at the Last Supper — but that Leonardo ended up having John lean toward Peter instead in order to isolate Jesus spatially in the composition.

When the Times reviewed Brown’s mega-selling novel almost ten years ago, however, it somehow overlooked the, uh, significant liberties taken in the pulpy volume with art history—not to mention Scripture, Church history, theology, and much more—describing it as a “riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller” and a “gleefully erudite suspense novel”. Sure, the novel rushes breathlessly to “the brink of overkill”, but no need to question anything in it, as “in the end Mr. Brown gracefully lays to rest all the questions he has raised.” (in fact, the ending of the novel is the clunker to outclunk all clunkers). What Mr. King says is correct; in fact, there isn’t an actual act historian worth his weight in pigments and paint brushes who would thinks otherwise. As Sandra Miesel and I wrote in The Da Vinci Hoax:

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 . . .”

The point is this: almost a decade after Brown’s novel came out, The Da Vinci Code is cemented as a cultural landmark, to the degree that countless stories about art and religion now make reference to it, as if one must bow low before the silly piece of literary trash before entering the halls of history. One might say it is a situation of the tail wagging the dog, but it’s even worse, because the tail doesn’t even exist. Still, on the bright side, it’s nice that the Times finally got around to curtailing its original enthusiasm about The Da Vinci Code, even if years too late and far too indirectly.

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.