Da Vinci Code: anti-Passion?

It's official - Tom Hanks will star in the movie version of The DaVinci Code.

What intrigues me about this, more than just the fact that it was an engrossing and thought-provoking book, is the possible reaction from the newly-empowered religious right.

Now, I should clarify something. The idea that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene is at much at odds with my own religious theological framework as it is for Catholics (though, understandably, the Catholic faith is more directly threatened by the content). Ultimately, the key to appreciating The DaVinci Code is for what it reveals about DaVinci's personal beliefs through his paintings, not about Jesus's life.

The book has inspired an entire industry of Christian counter-propaganda, attempting to debunk or deny what they see as a threat to their faith. However, it is clear that the book represents a decidely non-conformist interpretation of DaVinci's beliefs, and the underlying message of his art. Regardless of whether you agree or not with that interpetation, it is clear that The Last Supper is a complex, subversive work and not one that seamlessly jibes with mainstream Christian views.

However, DaVinci has been co-opted by the religious right as a comrade in belief, and representations and derivative works of his paintings often completely obfuscate the subversive elements. Most notably, the diembodied hand and the gender of the person at Jesus's right-hand. In recreations (both painted and live-action) I observe that the hand becomes attached, somewhat awkwardly, to the figure peering leftwards, and the figure at Jesus's right is much more masculine. The fact that Leonardo deliberately bent gender identities in other paintings (not least of which is Mona Lisa / Amon Li) only adds to the mystery of that figure, and certainly isn't an argument in defense of the traditional religious interpretation of the painting.

So, it will be intriguing to see the reaction from the religious right to the release of this movie. It may well be the anti-Passion of the Christ. I have a feeling that we will see coordinated boycott campaigns, pressure upon movie theaters chains to stop the film, and a DaVinci-debunk-umentary on Sinclair-owned television stations.

I fully expect to see the right attempt to consolidate its influence and strive to enact actual social policy during Bush's second term. I hope I am proven wrong, but already even supposedly mainstream, big-tent Republican groups are interpreting Bush's mandate as a stimulus for sustained jihad against pro-choice GOP politicians and trial balloons about banning divorce (an action whose inherent misogyny would put the Taliban to shame). The war on choice has expanded to a war on birth control. And don't think for a moment it stops there - the self-styled architects of Bush's re-election, the ones who delivered the I-4 Corridor in Florida and the balance of power in Ohio, are suddenly conspicously public, and reminding the President that they expect their due this term. (UPDATE: More on Mullah Dobson here).

I think that The DaVinci Code, as a movie, will become a rallying-point. For both sides in the culture war that the religious right seeks to provoke.

UPDATE: I thought I was quite clear in the post above, but judging from some of the reaction in comments, trackback, and email, I guess not. The DaVinci Code is indeed a work of fiction, and is indeed based on historical fact and art history. The fiction part is the global conspiracy to hide the living descendants of Jesus Christ. The factual truth part is the description of details in Leonardo's works of art that do not jibe with mainstream Christian interpretation. Believe or not, you can not deny that The Last Supper, and The Mona Lisa, are subversive works, despite the varnish of orthodoxy applied to them in subsequent centuries.

Look at The Last Supper yourself. I have cropped the image at high res (see at right) to focus on Jesus, Mary/John, and the disembodied knife. Note that the character whose hand slashes across Mary/John's troat is the one usually depicted as holding the knife, but if you look carefully, it's impossible, because both his hands are accounted for already. One is slashing the throat of Mary/John. The other is actually holding the wrist of the disembodied hand! There is a character in the foreground between the Slasher and Mary/John, but both his hands are accounted for (see annotated figure). It's possible that the hand belongs to Mary/John, but from my viewing it seems to far away for it to be anatomically possible. And why would either Mary or John want to have a knife at the table? The figure to the left of the hand also has his hands accounted for. That hand truly is disembodied. It's creepy.

Now, you could argue, so what? creepy hand with knife floating around - it IS a painting that foretells Jesus's betrayal, after all. But the point is that the disembodied nature of that hand has been systematically erased from all other versions post-Leonardo. I've seen countless reproductions of The Last Supper since reading The DaVinci Code, from websites to Wal Mart, and they all without exception attach the hand to Slasher.

This isn't any kind of proof that Jesus married Mary, or that the figure at the table is Mary, or anything else. It's just proof that Leonardo had layers of meaning and symbolism that are well beyond the boundaries of the orthodox view. Where The DaVinci Code excels is in generating a renewed interest in the art, and is forcing the viewer to ponder not just The Last Supper but also The Mona Lisa, The Virgin of the Rocks, and many others in more detail. That's something to laud Dan Brown for, regardless of your beliefs.

UPDATE: I seem to have really ticked this guy off. Still, given his civil dialog with this other guy who criticizes his book, he seems a decent fellow. He seems strangely defensive to the phrase "religious right" and perceives a critique of the Bush Administration in my post, which baffles me. Maybe if he returns the courtesy and reads a bit more of my blog he'll see I'm not quite the stereotype muslim for whom "Dan Brown = Salman Rushdie" would be an illuminating analogy.


Andrew said...

Ack. Not _The Da Vinci Code_. Please, if you're looking for a critique of Christianity, say that it blasphemes God to say that He would beget, say that the Bible has contradictions, say that it is an absurd offshoot of neo-Platonism. Don't use _The Da Vinci Code_.

Because the idea of a "secret truth supressed by the Catholic Church" is bunk. Such thinking misunderstands the way texts transmit, the nature of the early Church, and how the Church on down through the centuries dealt with heresy.

To start with, the Church had many approaches to heresy, but the one approach that it did not take was to try to suppress all knowledge of a heresy because it was "too dangerous." Even if none of the Gnostic Gospels had been recovered in Egypt, we could still do a plausible job of reconstructing gnostic belief. Why? Well, Paul writes that believers should shun certain beliefs. Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics lays out what Gnostic beliefs are. Likewise, we know very well what the Arian beliefs were because Athanasius wrote against them.

And that it's based on _Holy Blood, Holy Grail_ should seal the point. HBHG is predicated on the notion of a secret society spanning the centuries. Secret societies that span centuries make for fun thriller reading, but they don't happen. A secret society that hands down a carefully held belief on through the centuries is really, really implausible. Why? Well, open societies with far more access to information, texts, etc. don't cary their beliefs very far without serious modification. A secret society would be even worse.

Let me give an example. Carlo Ginsburg, author of _The Cheese and the Worms_ did some investigations of some local practices that had led to a witch trial. What evidence he put together based on extensive research in the inquisitorial records showed some long decayed traces of some sort of practices that may have been holdovers from an animistic religion. Fine. That makes perfect sense. These women themselves really had no clue as to what was going on in the rituals--if you were to posit a secret Pagan cult that had flourished on down through the centuries kept carefully secret, well, then you'd be in the territory of nonsense.

Okay, I'm going to stop because I'm just going to get further worked up. The bottom line is that _The Da Vinci Cod_ is bad history.

Andrew said...
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Andrew said...

Oh, and one other thing. The pro-life coalition is right now a coalition of Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. While Rome may preach that birth control is a no-no, most evangelical Churches do not. Given that a great many of your more devoted foot-soldiers to the pro-life movement are Evangelical Protestanst, legislation against birth control is a non-starter.

Andrew said...

With the important caveat that I Am Not An Art Historian, I looked for a while at the close-up, and all I could see was a wrist bent back. It could possibly be a hand gripping a disembodied hand, but I wasn't able to see it. But then, I actually know rather little about Da Vinci. It's entirely possible that he had some ideas that were not exactly orthodox (there were all kinds of fun and zany ideas floating around early-modern Europe), but I'm having a hard time seeing it.

Something else to bear in mind is that _The Last Supper_ has been through a *lot* of damage and restoration, so figuring out anything from a really close observation is going to be problematic at best.

Tinoa said...

The knife might actually be in Peter's hand, this webpage has more on it (a previous sketch/study by DaVici reveals this) http://www.urbanfolkparade.com/found/knife/index.htm

If the person to the left of jesus (from the viewer) is his wife magdalena then the knife could get a whole different meaning to the issue (ehr actually it "might" have...). In the Nag Hamadi scrolls, i think it was peter who objects 'strongly' to Maria Magdalena's authority. This is discussed elsewhere on the internets too.
Thanks for the great article (it is linked to from broodjeaap.nl a kind of urban-legend website)