Recently, we asked Rev. Richard Woods, OP, professor of theology and chair of the Department of Political Science, Theology, and Pastoral Ministry at Dominican University, for his thoughts about Dan Brown’s popular and controversial book The Da Vinci Code. The movie version of the book, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, will be released this Friday.
WJ: I think most readers, like me, kept wondering how much of this book is true? It’s written as if all of it were true, and critics who don’t like it assailed the liberties and the fudging and the outright fictions. Give a couple of examples of whoppers from the book.
Woods: That “The Madonna of the Rocks” was painted on canvas. It was on wood. Sophie couldn’t have lifted it from the wall, much less put her knee through it. Similarly, the painting by Caravaggio that her grandfather supposedly took down weighs at least 200 pounds and is attached by steel cables. Brown got the floor plan of the Louvre wrong, too.
That Mary Magdalene had a daughter named Sarah. A medieval legend relates that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Lazarus came to Gaul with an Egyptian slave girl named Sarah who later, as St. Sarah, became the patron saint of Gypsies.
That Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire (Theodosius I did that 50 years later).
That the Council of Nicea invented the notion that Jesus was divine. The divinity of Christ is not only clearly stated in the New Testament (five specific instances, and many indirect references), but was held in some form of other by virtually all Christians for centuries before the Council. The humanity of Jesus was sometimes denied, on the other hand. The Council of Nicea was convened to settle not whether but how Jesus could be both divine and human. And Constantine left that up to the bishops.
That an organization called the “Priory of Sion” existed, much less founded the Knights Templar. An Order of Sion existed in Jerusalem during the period of the Crusades, but was obliterated in 1291 with the fall of the Holy Land to the Muslims and all remaining assets were absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617.
That the Templars founded Roslyn Chapel. It was built in 1446. The Templars were suppressed in 1312.
That the figure at the right of Jesus in “the Last Supper” is female (Leonardo identified the figure as John. See below).
That “The Last Supper” represents the institution of the Eucharist. It portrays the moment when Jesus says he is about to be betrayed (“Is it I, Lord?” is the reference, with the apostles in shock and pointing at themselves. That is also why each has a cup in front of him. It’s not the Eucharist. The painting is tempera on plaster, by the way, not a fresco. And the artist is known as “Leonardo,” not “da Vinci.” Vinci was the town he was from. (It would be like calling Andy Warhols “New Yorker.”)
WJ: Have you examined the “feminine figure” in the restored “Last Supper”? How feminine is it? Any sign of the phantom dagger?
Woods: I have examined a large reproduction of the restored painting and consulted as much of the relevant expert literature as I can find. The figure at Jesus’ right is a beardless youth, vaguely androgynous perhaps, but without breasts, quite in keeping with similar paintings of the time. He has long hair, but so do Jesus and other figures. Further, Leonardo himself clearly identified the figure as the apostle John. There is no phantom dagger. The knife is in Peter’s hand, which is twisted behind him. Leonardo left a sketch showing how he constructed the figure.
WJ: I presume the critique of Opus Dei is somewhat inflated, but is there a grain of truth in his depiction? Did they bail out the Vatican, for instance, in the early ’80s? (Bishop Marcinkus, a Cicero native, took the rap for that scandal, as I recall). Is Opus Dei fabulously wealthy? I read a recent depiction in Harper’s Magazine that was pretty unflattering.
Woods: There is some truth in his depiction: There is a “personal Papal prelature” in the Catholic Church called Opus Dei, and it does have a regional headquarters in New York. No one knows if Opus Dei “bailed out” the Vatican, but it’s not likely. Nor is there any particular reason to suspect that it is “fabulously” wealthy, as I can’t think of any group in the Church that is! Even the pope is pinched for funds at times. The “wealth” of the Church tends to be in real estate and art. There are perhaps 80,000 members of Opus Dei in the world. Some practice physical austerities as portrayed in an exaggerated way in the book (and I’m sure in the film), but even those are the same as some Christians (mainly, but not exclusively, Catholics) used from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Although a favorite bogeyman of radicals and conspiracy theorists, Opus Dei does not in fact seem to have great influence in Rome or elsewhere and has not been implicated in any scandals. Two recent in-depth examinations by John Allen and Noam Friedlander indicate that the group is pretty innocuous. Few albinos, no monks, some priests, but 90 percent lay men and women.
The fall of the Banco Ambrosiano and the connection with the Banco del Espiritu Santo (Marcinkus et al.) was a real scandal and still something of a mystery”given the discovery of the secret Masonic Lodge P2, and the murder of Roberto Calvi and others. The accidental death of John Paul I, first feared to have been the result of the banking scandal, led to an investigation that broke open the case and led to the exposure of P2. It’s a fascinating, real-life conspiracy story that deserves further examination. Marcinkus was the fall guy, and may have been actually implicated, but that has never been established.
WJ: Would you characterize the book as “a pretty effective tweak” of the Catholic Church or “a grossly unfair and harmful invective” or both or something else altogether?
Woods: It’s a travesty, just like Angels and Demons. The best thing the Church could have done would have been to ignore it, leaving refutation to historians, scripture scholars, and art experts. I don’t think Brown hates the Church. The book is erroneous and wrong-headed, but not diabolical.
WJ: The main idea in the book, it seems to me, is that we are a culture badly out of balance (male-dominated, female subjugated) and that most of our societal ills can be traced to that imbalance. Aside from all the other more peripheral considerations (in my opinion, they’re peripheral), what do you think about that point? Do we need to regain our balance by rediscovering and celebrating the “sacred feminine” (whatever that turns out to be)?
Woods: It’s a claim easier made than supported (or refuted). In one sense, it’s obviously true that our culture and society are seriously diseased. But not all our ills can be traced to the gender imbalance. (Re)Discovering some “sacred feminine” is hardly likely to fix everything, and could become just another distraction. The crisis in our society is comprehensively human. I am very concerned about sexual trafficking, especially of children; honor killings, the growing disproportion of males and females in China and India; and the lack of political representation of women in the U.S. Congress, the Church, the U.N., and the business world. But equal rights before the law, equal pay, equal opportunity, and protection for the defenseless (abused women) have to do with human rights, dignity, and justice. (Do I sound like a member of Amnesty International? I hope so.)
WJ: Seems to me this book has probably helped promote interest in Da Vinci (sorry, Leonardo) and art history (esp. as it dovetails with religious history). Is that a good thing or will people simply become disillusioned when they probe deeper and discover that things aren’t as airtight and “coded” as Brown makes them out to be?
Woods: There may be a flurry of interest in art history (I noticed an increase in programs about Leonardo on the History Channel), but ordinary folks are more likely simply to lose interest once they discover that neither he nor any other great painter coded secret knowledge in their paintings. But I also note with interest that the Leonardo exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry is drawing big crowds. (I’m going on Saturday!)
WJ: What have I missed?
Woods: Not much! From my viewpoint, the most disturbing aspect of the book (besides being poorly written) is Brown’s (and Doubleday’s!) promotion of inaccuracies, mistakes, misrepresentations, distortions, and fabrications in history, scripture, art, and even geography. Even for a work of fiction, it is essentially a cleverly plotted pastiche of deceptions purporting to be “based on fact.” It just isn’t. (Caldwell and Thomason’s Rule of Four, for instance, is much better and a lot more fun. So is Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.) It’s not diabolical, just wrong-headed.
WJ: What was your reaction to the book”not as an academic or a priest, but as a reader? Did you enjoy it? Are you planning to see the film?
Woods: I semi-enjoyed the book”it was cleverly plotted but poorly written. The mistakes were annoying, and any writer who uses the non-word “snuck” (twice, no less) deserves a thrashing. I will definitely see the film.