The Da Vinci Code

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The Da Vinci Code

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In 2003, a writer of popular thriller novels suddenly emerged from relative obscurity when his novel The Da Vinci Code, originally published as a paperback, became an international bestseller. Within two years Dan Brown’s novel had been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than twenty-five million copies. It also became the center of an international controversy concerning the substance of the reputed factual material woven into the fabric of the plot, material that many saw as an attack upon Christianity in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. That controversy reached a new stage when the movie version of the book was released in May 2006.

The plot of The Da Vinci Code is fairly straightforward. Hero Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor introduced in Brown’s earlier novel Angels and Demons, begins an investigation of the murder of the curator of the Louvre museum in France, whose body has been found next to an enigmatic cipher. Langdon, who specializes in art and symbology, attains the assistance of a cryptologist, and the pair begin a search through the symbols found in the art works of Leonardo da Vinci. Their search leads them into encounters with the very real Catholic organization Opus Dei and a somewhat fictionalized organization, the Priory of Sion, the protector of a historical secret that is threatened to be lost to humankind.

The Da Vinci Code is a novel, and it might have stayed on the bestseller charts for only a few weeks had it not been for the brief statement at the beginning that makes a number of assertions about the “facts” Brown used to structure the plot. The author writes:

The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain-washing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as “corporal mortification.” Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.

All the descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

As Langdon rushes across France and the United Kingdom in search of a murderer, he uncovers a set of secrets that revises both Christian and secular European history. In this new account, following Jesus’ death, his wife Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant with Jesus’ child, moved to France. There she bore a child named Sarah. The child continued Jesus’ royal bloodline. Brown argues that Jesus charged Mary Magdalene with the task of building his church, not Simon Peter (as recounted in the Bible). Thus, while Jesus’ male followers were building what became known as the Catholic Church, in France, the Jewish community protected Sarah and her descendants and honored Mary Magdalene. Eventually, in the fifth century, one of those descendants intermarried with French royalty, producing the Merovingian family. The Merovingians ruled until 751, when the Carolingians came to power. Although removed from the throne, the Merovingians did not disappear. The family continues to the present.

Among the descendants of the Merovingian kings was Godefroi de Bouillon (1060–1100), who led the first crusade and ordered the Templars into Jerusalem. He is less interested in taking the Holy Land from the Muslims than in locating a set of documents, the Sangreal documents, which tell the true story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Once he arrived in Jerusalem in 1099, he founded the Priory of Sion. It is the Priory’s ongoing task to protect the Sangreal documents, guard the Tomb of Mary Magdalene (the real Holy Grail of legend), and nurture and protect the bloodline, i.e., those Merovingians who are still alive.

According to Brown, the Priory of Sion has continued to the present as a secret society and has included a number of notables in its lineage of Grand Masters. There are several alchemists, such as Nicholas Flamel and Robert Flood, as well as the reputed founder of the Rosicrucians, Valentin Andrea. From the artistic community, the priory selected artists Botticelli and da Vinci, dramatist Charles Nodier, writer Victor Hugo, musician Claude Debussy, and poet Jean Cocteau. Scientists are represented by Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

Most of this history is pure fantasy. There are no records to indicate Mary Magdalene’s bearing a child with Jesus or her journeying to France, and no records of her descendants surviving and marrying into the Merovingian family. Godefroi de Bouillon is a real person, though not a descendant of the Merovingians, who in 1099 did found an Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This monastic community continued to exist until 1291 but was destroyed as Muslims retook the city. The surviving monks moved to Sicily and carried on for another century, but the order died out in the fourteenth century.

What is today known as the Priory of Sion is a very modern organization founded in 1956 in France by Pierre Plantard (1920–2000). It has no connection with the prior Abbey of Zion; rather, Plantard saw it operating within the relatively large Esoteric community of France. The priory never found its place, however, and remains a very small society. Between the demise of the Abbey of Zion and the founding of the modern Priory of Sion, there is no record of any secret organization with leaders such as da Vinci, Victor Hugo, and other such notables. It is, however, the practice of several modern Esoteric groups to claim a heritage that includes the historically notable. For example, the California-based Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC, founded in 1915) includes in its pre-twentieth-century Rosicrucian lineage Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Teresa of Avila, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Claude Debussy, among others.

Although this story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Priory of Sion did not originate with Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, it is a recently constructed myth. Plantard, with the assistance of two colleagues, Philippe de Chérisey (1925–1985) and Gérard de Sède (1921–2004), put together one part of the story, attempting to establish the claimsof the Merovingians to the French throne and, incidentally, Plantard’s place as a Merovingian descendant, which was published in a 1967 book, L’Or de Rennes. To document this story, Plantard and de Chérisey created a set of documents that they deposited at the French National Library. Plantard also claimed access to documents revealing the truth concerning the Priory of Sion that had been hidden in a church at Rennes le Château, a small town in southern France. These documents had supposedly been discovered in 1897 by the parish priest Berenger Saunière, who used them to become wealthy. Plantard and his associates later admitted they had created the Priory of Sion story from whole cloth.

The story outlined in L’Or de Rennes was then taken up by three writers, Henry Soskin (aka Henry Lincoln), Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh, in their pseudo-documentary book, Holy Blood/Holy Grail, published in 1982. To Plantard’s story, the three authors added the account of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the royal bloodline. Holy Blood/Holy Grail became a bestseller in the Esoteric world, and it is the immediate source of the myth as presented by Brown. Brown also brings into the story some later accretions to the basic plot, including reflections on the Templar’s Scottish outpost in Scotland, Rosslyn Chapel

In the wake of the success of Brown’s book, a number of books have appeared that attempt to make Brown’s readers aware that his “facts” are actually the outgrowth of an elaborate hoax and a pseudo-documentary and that no documents exist to offer any substantiation to his alternate history of Jesus and Christianity. As has been demonstrated with other modern hoaxes, however, it is unlikely that the myth will be laid to rest. In fact, in the wake of Brown’s success, Holy Blood/Holy Grail has enjoyed a new spurt in sales, and at least two books supportive of Plantard’s myth have appeared.

Sources:

Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood/Holy Grail. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.
Beverley, James A. Counterfeit Code: Answering the Da Vinci Code Heresies. Pickering, ON: Bay Ridge Books, 2005.
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday & Company, 2003.
Introvigne, Massimo. “Beyond The Da Vinci Code: History and Myth of the Priory of Sion.” Posted at http://www.cesnur.org/2005/pa_introvigne.htm. Accessed April 1, 2007.
Olson, Carl, and Sandra Meisel. The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code. Ft. Collins, CO: Ignatius Press, 2004.
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Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code was adapted as a movie starring Tom Hanks.

The Da Vinci Code

The Vatican called Dan Brown’s novel a “sack full of lies.” While there is no question the book is a work of fiction, millions are left pondering which of the many controversial “facts” are lies and which are truths hidden for centuries.

In March 2005, in an interview from Vatican City with the Reuters News Service, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone called upon all Roman Catholics to shun The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown as if it were rotten food. “The book is a sack full of lies against the Church, against the real history of Christianity, and against Christ himself,” Cardinal Bertone proclaimed. He condemned the novel as “the latest in a series of devastating attacks against Christianity.”

In 1982, when Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln published The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, it was regarded as a controversial, albeit skillful and well-researched, nonfiction account of the centuries-old tradition that Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene were man and wife, that Jesus might have escaped death on the cross, and that their descendants intermarried with the family that later formed the French Merovingian dynasty. The book became a bestseller in Europe and the United States, creating a bit of a stir with its theory that there might well be people in France walking around with Christ’s blood coursing through their veins. As the book encouraged discussion of previously off-limits and sacrosanct topics, it roused a number of clergy to defend the faith as it had been cherished for nearly two thousand years, and there were resounding official denials that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or anyone else. Then things settled back to normal in church pews across the world, and such topics as the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Gnosticism, Rosslyn Chapel, and the bloodline of Jesus and Mary became subjects discussed only by scholars and men and women with esoteric and arcane interests.

When The Da Vinci Code was published in 2001, the book rose almost overnight to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and quickly attained comparable ratings on charts around the world. Printing after printing pushed the sales to nearly 20 million. The book has been translated into forty languages, and some estimates place Brown’s financial take somewhere in the neighborhood of $390 million. For a time, it seemed that one could not go anywhere with hearing people discussing the startling new and never-before-known revelations that Brown had made in his book. Could Jesus and Mary really have been married? Has the church been hiding knowledge of their children all these centuries? What about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi codices, and all the other gospels and books that got left out of the Bible?

It has been often noted that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come—and in writing and all the other arts, timing is everything. In the 1980s the prevailing spirit of the time, the mass acceptance of ideas and concepts that would challenge age-old dogmas and ecclesiasticisms, had not yet been infused with the Internet, an increasingly aggressive mass culture, and the scandals that the church brought on itself by hiding for hundreds of years the sins of the fathers. With the dawning of a new millennium, millions of men and women not only were ready to ask questions, they were ready to get some answers of their own.

At the same time that some previously very orthodox Christians, inspired by the novel, are preparing to venture forth on some rather iconoclastic quests, a number of scholars, both religious and secular, urge a bit of caution. The problem with Brown’s book, argues a kind of academic and ecclesiastical consensus, is that too many people regard it as a scholarly nonfiction treatise, rather than a story, a work of fiction, a novel.

Among the flashing yellow lights of caution issued by scholars are the following:

  • Brown writes that the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. established the divinity of Jesus, and until the council’s decision, Jesus was regarded by his followers as a mortal prophet. Theologians counter this assertion by explaining that one of the principal reasons the council was called was to deal with the heresy of Arius, an Alexandrian theologian who argued that Jesus was not God in the flesh. Throughout the epistles and in the canon, rules, and practice of most early Christians, Jesus was Lord (Greek kyrios), divinity.
  • Brown’s characters maintain that the figure to the right of Jesus in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is Mary Magdalene, rather than an effeminate apostle John. This controversial identification was first made in The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. If the figure at the Last Supper is not John, the disciple most loved by Jesus, the disciple to whom he entrusted the care of his mother, then where is John in the painting?
  • Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, cites the absence of a chalice in da Vinci’s painting as proof that the great artist knew the truth about the actual identity of the Holy Grail and was a member of a secret society protecting that truth from being declared heretical and stamped out by the Inquisition. Biblical scholars point out that da Vinci based his painting on John 13:21, where Jesus prophesies, “One of you will betray me.” The Catholic scholarjournalist Sandra Miesel further states that there is no institution of the Holy Eucharist in the gospel of John.
  • The albino Opus Dei monk who murders the curator in the Louvre in Paris and begins the action of the novel is said to operate out of Opus Dei headquarters on Lexington Avenue in New York. Brown claims that he worked very hard to create a fair and balanced depiction of the group. Although conceding that the organization has been a very positive force in the lives of some people, Brown states that “for others Opus Dei has been a profoundly negative experience.”
  • One of the novel’s central storylines defines the Holy Grail as the bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, rather than the cup or drinking vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Traditional clergy say that in this and other respects, the novel consistently depicts the church as suppressing the role of women. Cardinal Bertone countered this charge by stating that the role of women in the church is “a primary one, starting from Mary, the mother of God.”

In December 2004 Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh announced that they were suing Random House and Dan Brown for theft of intellectual property and charged that there were clear links between their book Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Baigent told the New Zealand Herald that having his and his colleagues’ research “lumped” into Brown’s fictional work degraded the historical implications of their efforts. Baigent and his coauthors, Leigh and Lincoln, set forth a hypothesis in Holy Blood, and they “managed to establish that a certain amount was shown to be correct; the rest was plausible.”

Dan Brown, for his part, has never claimed to have come up with ideas that were never before in circulation. On his website he admits that most of the information is not as “inside” as it seems: “The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from.”