Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 6, Number 20, July 7 to July 20, 2004

Why The Mona Lisa Smirks
A Book Review of The Da Vinci Code
by Rev. Marty Fields


I have wondered for a long time why Leonardo Da Vinci's The Mona Lisa is such a famous painting. From a novice's point-of-view, I never saw anything in the painting that made me want to look at it more than a couple of seconds. The size of the painting is rather small— nothing like the great artistic endeavor of the Sistine Chapel— and the person in the painting is not particularly striking in appearance. But after reading Dan Brown's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, I have been looking at its detail far more intensely. While the book is a novel, it is main streaming one of the many conspiracy theories that was allegedly embraced by the cryptic artist Leonardo Da Vinci. This particular conspiracy is one that, according to the novel, stands to bring down the entire Christian establishment by revealing a "truth" that has been hidden ever since the death of the Apostles.

Summary of the Book

The Da Vinci Code begins with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, curator of The Louvre in Paris. Just prior to his death, Sauniere leaves a mysterious cipher: he removes his clothes and lays in a peculiar way. Next to himself he has written a mysterious message that turns out to be a series of anagrams. While in Paris on a lecture tour Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon is called in to solve Sauniere's mysterious message. Langdon solves the riddle and is shocked to find that it leads to a trail of clues hidden in Da Vinci's works. Langdon is assisted by a French cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Sauniere's granddaughter), and they learn that Neveu's grandfather was a member of a secret society known as "The Priory of Sion," whose members have supposedly included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others. The members of the Priory of Sion have been the keepers of a number of manuscripts that were found beneath the remains of the old Jewish temple in Jerusalem towards the latter part of the first millennium. These manuscripts (some ascribed to Jesus) contain essential pagan teachings that say Jesus was not divine, that he was married to Mary Magdalene, that he produced a bloodline, and that the "true" religion he embraced was that of the worship of both god (father of the heavens) and goddess (mother of the earth). His marriage to Magdalene, and the subsequent offspring, is the most sacred part of the secret because she is the one to produce the bloodline. According to the manuscripts (protected by The Priory of Sion) the Holy Grail is not a cup that held Jesus' blood at his crucifixion; it is rather the one who procures the bloodline. In other words the Holy Grail is Mary Magdelene, she is the chalice that carries the blood (line) of Christ.

In addition to this, according to the secret manuscripts Jesus left, Mary Magdalene, not Peter, was left in charge of the church and its future. But this was not to last once Christianity became legal.

Constantine: The Bogeyman

In the book The Priory of Sion claims that the emperor Constantine, in order to keep control of the Roman empire, converted the empire to Christianity beginning in A.D. 313. In doing this he buried the essential "truths" concerning Jesus' true nature, Mary Magdelene, and the worship of the goddess, in favor of a male-dominated church and exclusive worship of god as "father." In insuring this conversion anyone who worshipped the "Old Religion" was either forced to convert or be executed. This pattern of forced conversion continued on through the so-called "Dark Ages," and reached its culmination with the persecution of Pagans according to the Roman Catholic publication of The Witches Hammer, which was a manual that showed Catholic leaders how to find, try, and punish those who held to Pagan beliefs. According to the book, as well as histories sympathetic to paganism, over five million people were executed at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Once the manuscripts were discovered the Pagans had their leverage with the Church. In return for keeping the manuscripts hidden the Catholic Church allowed the members of the Priory of Sion and their Knights, the Knights Templar, to do their work in secret and without repercussions.

The Anatomy of the Conspiracy

The book deals with what have long been conspiracy theories regarding Da Vinci's most famous works: The Virtruvian Man, The Last Supper, Madonna of the Rocks, and The Mona Lisa. It is widely believed that Da Vinci was a prankster and a genius who painted all kinds of hidden clues to his beliefs in his art. With respect to The Da Vinci Code this comes to the forefront in Da Vinci's famous works of The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa. According to the conspiracy the person to Jesus' right in The Last Supper is not John the Baptist; it is Mary Magdalene. It is true that if you look closely you will notice that the person depicted is very feminine looking. The person is also dressed in the same colors as Jesus, and sits in such a way to form a "V" shape— which the conspiracy advocates say is symbolic for the womb of a woman, in Mary's case it is a symbol of her womb— the grail.

So why does the Mona Lisa smirk? This is allegedly due to the belief that The Mona Lisa is androgynous— the melding of male and female sexuality into one. Da Vinci allegedly believed that in addition to their being a "god" there was also a "goddess," also known as "the sacred feminine." In good form with the hiding of the belief through anagrams, conspiracy theorists believe that it is an androgynous self-portrait of Da Vinci, and that the name of the painting, Mona Lisa, is not a real name but an anagram of the Egyptian god "Amon," and the Egyptian goddess "Isis." And so "Mona Lisa" is an anagram for "Amon-L'lsa" (Italian for Isis). But it is quite well-known that the woman is Madonna Lisa, wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo.

Throughout the book several allusions to the sacred feminine in nature are made: the movements of the planet Venus (the planet of the feminine), the prevalence of the mathematical irrational "Phi" (which is 1.618, a number often called the "Divine Proportion," since it does show up a lot in nature), the meaning of the pentacle (or pentagram) as a reference to the sacred feminine, and so on. The basic idea (according to the book) is that an essential part of reality— the sacred feminine— has been subjugated producing an imbalance in nature. This allegedly accounts for many of the world's problems.

Impeccable Research?

The Da Vinci Code relies heaviliy on the "research" done in a number of feminist writings, most notably The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, and The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine; and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, both by Margaret Starbird. These works are known to be highly questionable in their scholarship, and are not at all taken to be reliable works with respect to the history of Christianity. Nevertheless, the ideas contained in them are presented as such. Because of this somewhat naive acceptance of the theses of these works by Brown some rather obvious mistakes are made.

First of all there are some rather serious historical mistakes. His claim that five million witches were burned at the stake by the Catholic Church is patently false. The actual number has been set at around 60,000 at the most. He claims that the Knights Templar (arguably the oldest military order), were not protectors of Holy Land pilgrims, but were rather keepers of the grail story who blackmailed the Vatican with their "secret." According to Brown, Pope Clement V had the Knights rounded up, burned at the stake, and their ashes thrown into the Tiber river in Rome. In all of the Vatican bashing Brown seems to overlook that the popes were not always in Rome. Clement V lived in Avignon, not Rome! This is often dubbed "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" since the papacy was not in Rome for approximately 70 years— roughly the same amount of time the Jews were in Babylon. Brown also seems to think that the Merovingians founded France (p. 257) which they did not.

But Brown also makes some rather elementary mistakes in reasoning. He is quick to have the characters point out that history is written by the victors, and the "real" history is often subjugated. He quotes Napoleon as once saying, "What is history but a fable agreed upon?" (p. 256). Yet only a few pages earlier he states that Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdelene is "...a matter of historical record." (p. 244). The "source" for this is not, of course, the gospels that were supposedly rewritten in favor of Constantine's dogma. The source cited in the book is the Gospel of Phillip, a document whose authenticity is doubted by mainstream Biblical scholarship. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Apparently relativizing history is only actual when it suits Brown's agenda. Brown further shows his ignorance of textual criticism by referring to the Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls as "The earliest Christian documents." The Nag Hammadi are a collection of manuscripts discarded for their heretical teaching by the early church, and are certainly not Christian in theology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are primarily made up of writings that pre-date the birth of Jesus! It is quite a stretch to call them "the earliest Christian documents."


To be fair, The Da Vinci Code is a novel— and a real page turner at that. I almost read it all in one sitting! Brown is a talented writer and does a good job telling a story. But he goes beyond mere storytelling and presents a patently anti-Christian and blasphemous tale as truth. He implicates the entire Christian Church, particularly the Catholic church, as built on intentional lies, murder, secrets, and deception. The Catholic church has been less than thrilled by this slander.

In a recent interview on ABC's 20/20 Brown confessed his conversion to this way of thinking about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, hardly making his research anything but objective. Indeed he sees himself as on a kind of mission to bring this conspiracy to the mainstream. But sadly, many— including many Christians— are not versed well enough in history or theology to see these errors, and will easily fall pray to Satan's subtle deception (2 Cor. 11:3). The Da Vinci Code is entertaining, but as with anything else, it ought to be read with discernment.