I have poked some fun at Da Vinci’s Last Supper over the years, depicting it like a scene from Barry Levinson’s 1983 film, Diner, in which a bunch of guys bitch and kibbitz over ordering the food and who is going to pick up the check. I have even alleged that the Last Supper took place in a 1st century establishment called Max’s Jerusalem Deli, where one of the “twelve” appropriately ordered rack of lamb for Jesus because, after all, he is the Agnus Dei, and not long after would be the sacrificial “lamb” in the centerpiece of Christian Liturgy.
When it was being painted on the wall of Milan’s Santa Maria della Grazie, a project that took Da Vinci three years overall (1495-98), it was called the Cenacolo, (cena, Italian for dinner). The Cenacolo was a big deal, eagerly awaited by the public, as were all works of art by famous artists in Tuscany. Artists were the “rock stars” of the time. Moreover, most works of art were commissioned by religious authorities and dealt with religious subjects. So, given the times in which there was even less separation between church and state than there is in America these days, the way in which the subject was depicted was charged with both political and religious consequences.
The intrigue of Sierra’s novel will remind some of The DaVinci Code. It has all of that secret stuff, with oddball monks, unexplained murders, and especially, coded messages and riddles imbedded in Latin and, in this case, the famous painting. DaVinci has become the prime vehicle for this sort of genre; he was brilliant polymath, the model of the “Renaissance man,” and quirky. His sexuality, or lack of it, has always been in question, he worked on projects that were related to military concerns, new technologies, he visited morgues and apparently dissected corpses to better understand human physiology, and he wrote about these things in a mirror script. (Some allege that, because he was left-handed, Da Vinci found it more comfortable to write from right to left.)
It must be admitted that the Renaissance is a good period for mining material for the historical politico-religious thriller. There were a lot of activities that might remind one of today. There were the rivalries between the states in Italy, especially between the city-states, such as Florence and Milan, as well as rivalries between the powerful families, such as the Medici, Borgia, d’Este and Sforza contending for secular and religious power, and there were heresies, such as the Cathar heresy in Southern France (the same place that figures prominently in The DaVinci Code) that was regarded as a diabolical threat to the Roman Catholic Church, and the liturgical differences between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. And we must not leave out that instrument of the “extraordinary rendition” of the time—the Inquisition.
Sierra chooses Fr. Agostino Leyre as his narrator. He is, appropriately, a Dominican, since they were most active as inquisitors and, we learn, writing about the events of the story as an old man who has taken up a hermetic retirement in Egypt. Agostino is one of several fictional characters set in amongst a cast that includes actual characters and events in addition to DaVinci and the painting. He provides a cast of characters at the end of the book and one can distinguish which are the historical figures because the vital dates are provided for real persons.
Agostino’s narration begins with the sudden death of Beatrice d’Este, the 22-year-old Duchess of Milan, who dies in childbirth. But these were the days when there was a lot of poisoning going on. That event really doesn’t go anywhere and the story gets ff to a rather sluggish start with much setting up about riddles and word play, which is an interest of Agostino, who has been dispatched by higher authorities to find out if there is anything suspicious going on in Milan.
DaVinci, who is not a very religious man, is suspect. Then there is a mysterious monk called the “Soothsayer” who is a master interpreter of riddles, a one-eyed monk and another who is a librarian that apparently sells mysterious books to a rich merchant from Spain. At the center if it all is a Latin poem of a few lines than makes no sense by itself and, of course, the painting of the Last Supper.
There are also a couple of murders, both of monks, one of which is the librarian, and grisly death of the on-eyed monk, apparently because they ”knew too much” about a conspiracy that is deeper still in the plot. These plot thickeners don’t really do all that much for the reader except to throw suspicion in several directions, including at Leonardo himself, since he is notoriously insouciant about such matters, as is not only demonstrated by this book, but in reference (to those who know his story) to the manner in which he sketched the hanged Pazzi conspirators in the murder of Giulano de Medici back in Florence.
This all unravels rather incredulously for this reader with relationships drawn among the variable of the poem, nicknames assigned to the apostles, and eventually, ecco, that you need to read things in reverse when you are dealing with Leonardo, and in so doing the sets of letter derived from the positions of the apostles at the last (and secret) supper spell out a word that points to Leonardo (or his patron) being part of the dreaded Cathar hersey
But one ends up asking this question: If the intent of the clues to the Secret Supper are so complexly-imbedded in the positions, arrangements, and portrayals of the attendees at the last supper such that it painfully reveals some cipher that ends up spelling out a single word that represents the Cathar heresy, then why should anyone give a damn about this? If one has to read an entire book just to get at this rather fabricated and not very interesting result, it is about as consequential as finding Mickey Mantle’s 1958 batting average represented in some passage in Deuteronomy.
It may be that, because religion relies upon a willing suspension of rationality, writers of this sort of genre rely upon a willingness to accept an interpretation of meaning that can be gratuitously extracted from most any set if circumstances. Indeed, religion very much aboutassigning meaning, often recondite meaning (which makes it even more meaningful) to things. Those with fatalistic religiosity walk around in a self-constructed (deluded?) world in which everything has meaning because it is a universe of god(s), spirits, contending forces of good and evil in some cosmic drama in which they are a player/spectator. If everything has a meaning, then nothing has meaning.
Not that the Cathar heresy (they regarded themselves a “pure” Christians and gave no allegiance to the Pope) is inconsequential. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church, which in those days tolerated no competition, wiped out the Cathars rather ruthlessly. Sierra writes that, “When the papal troops would enter a city in which the heretics had taken root, they killed all men, women and children, making no distinction between Cathars and Christians. When they reached Heaven, the soldiers said, God would distinguish his own.” (P. 234) Sound familiar?
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.7.2008)