The “Last Supper” is considered one of the highest points in the entire history of Western art. Completed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1497, it depicts the reaction of Christ’s Disciples to his declaration that a traitor lay hidden among their number. The portrait, however, conceals much more. In his bestselling “investigative” novel, The Secret Supper, Javier Sierra explores some of the enigmas presented by the mural that Leonardo da Vinci was, in fact, one of the last of the Cathar heretics. In the following article, Sierra presents the groundbreaking research that led to the writing of his prizewinning novel.
It all happened in a heartbeat.
The morning of the 13th to the 14th of August, 1943, an aerial flotilla of forty-seven Anglo-American bombers dropped twenty-two tons of incendiary bombs on Milan… One of the bombs fell right on Magenta Street, beside the brick façade of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. After the conflagration the south wall of the church collapsed taking with it the walls of the two lateral chapels from the XVth century. Immediately afterwards, another incendiary bomb hit the sacristy,destroying the oldest parts of the convent, including the area surrounding the refectory and its most precious treasure: an 8.8 meters by 4.6 meters mural on which, in 1497, Leonardo da Vinci had completedhis largest work,the “Last Supper.”
From their air raid shelters, the friars of the convent feared the worst. Nevertheless, against all expectations, the wall of the Leonardo stood intact.
“It was an authentic miracle,” Venturino Alce, the present librarian at Santa Maria delle Grazie, repeated several times while spreading before me the photos of the bombing.
I spoke with Father Alce in April of 2003, months before Dan Brown would place that forgotten Milanese convent back on all the tourist maps, thanks to his novel The Da Vinci Code.
Without realizing it, I was already on the trail of the same theories that Brown would brandish in his novel, thanks to the essay by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Templar Revelation. In that work, the two British authors underscored certain anomalies in the various details of the “Last Supper,” which called for a meticulous examination in situ. They claimed, for example, that it was quite strange that in a depiction of the Passover supper of Christ, there was no representation to be found of the Holy Grail. “There’s no wine before Jesus, and only symbolic quantities scattered along the table.”And they conclude, rightly, “to paint the Last Supper without a significant quantity of wine is like painting the culminating moment of a coronation and omitting the crown.”
In their book they also single out other equally disturbing anomalies. Leonardo, for example, had opted to paint the Apostle John, not leaning on Jesus’ breast as in the Gospels, but leaning away from him and beardless, with his head bowed in submission and hands crossed. Exactly the same as Leonardo was accustomed to portray the women of his paintings. Dan Brown made good use of this observation, creating a scandal that reverberated around the world by asking what a woman might be doing among the apostles of the “Last Supper.”
The findings of Picknett and Prince guided Brown in the writing of his bestseller. According to those scholars, the woman in question could be no other than Mary Magdalene. This impression is reinforced thanks to little details of the mural: for example, the blue of Saint John’s robe was also common to the Madonnas painted in the XVth and XVIth centuries. Furthermore, the strange empty space between John and Jesus presented the form of a “V,” like the female pubis. Were these not clues that pointed clearly to the presence of a female at the Passover supper of Jesus?
And what to make of that hand that wields a knife, but that doesn’t seem to belong to any apostle, which appears at the shoulder of Judas and which some have claimed belongs to Peter?Whose hand is it finally?And what is its meaning? “These anomalies,” the authors of The Templar Revelation declare, “completely escape the eyes and the mind of the observer, simply because they are too extraordinary and shocking to absorb.”
“And you ask me what I think of these of these peculiarities?”
Father Venturino Alce scrutinized me coldly. For a moment I thought he was going to expel me from the archives of the convent without permitting me to consult anything further. I held his gaze, however, and nodded my head in assent.
“I’m not an expert on Leonardo,” he finally replied, “but I can assure you that what we know today as the “Last Supper” has suffered so much damage and so many modifications in the last five centuries that many of the anomalies which seem to trouble you so may quite likely be the fruit of poor restorations.You should investigate all this –isn’t that what you’re here for?
Anomalies o errors
Father Alce was right. Only three years after Leonardo had finished painting the Cenacolo floodwaters reached the north wall of the refectory, seriously damaging the mural… By the end of the XVIth century, commentators who admired this Da Vinci work were already warning of its ruinous state. Moreover, practically from the time of its “unveiling,” the work was frequently copied by other artists, as much from the worry that it might be lost forever as from their admiration for the artistic power of the Tuscan genius.In the XVIIIth century it was twice repainted. And between 1612 and 1977, there were no lack of attempts to restore the “Last Supper” to its “ancient splendor” (sic), by adding to it, erasing from it, or substituting one thing for another along the way. “Of all the restorations,” Father Alce warned me, “you have to realize that only this latest one actually applied what could be called scientific criteria and thus recuperated elements that had been lost until then.
The news enigmas of the Cenacolo
When in 1977 the most recent restoration of the “Last Supper” was undertaken, the experts discovered the damage to the wall produced by the World War II bombings. That summer of 1943 was the only time in more than four-hundred years that the painting had been exposed to the elements, and this tragedy exacted its price. The labors to correct the resulting damage took two decades, affording Dr. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon the time to effect an exceptional restoration: not only did she clean the entire wall of the Cenacolo, but she actually rediscovered areas of the painting darkened over by the centuries of neglect.Suddenly, in 1997, a “new,” “Last Supper” was presented to the world, revealing details that had passed unnoticed not only by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince —who published their The Templar Revelation that same year—but by Dan Brown as well. These particularities, never previously taken into account by the experts, revealed a Cenacolo still more mysterious than previously imagined….
The first anomaly that strikes the viewer concerns the “improperly placed” hand of Peter. The restoration by Dr. Brambilla solved the mystery emphasized in Picknett and Prince’s work by lightening the relevant area of shadow and revealing that, contrary to their suppositions, the hand with the knife did not belong to a 14th apostle, but unquestionably to Saint Peter.
The drawings of that arm, penned by Leonardo and preserved at Windsor Castle, demonstrate as much. As do also the oldest copies of the “Last Supper”: that of Tommaso Aleni in 1508, preserved in Cremona; and that of Antonio da Gessate in 1506, which also survived the bombings of Milan in 1943. So then, what did Leonardo want to depict with this scene? Why is Peter hiding a dagger behind his back, while leaning threateningly on John’s neck? What is the profound meaning of this scene? It is probable that Leonardo overcame the censure of the Dominicans by arguing that the dagger anticipates the fury that Peter will feel on the Mount of Olives, at the arrest of Christ following their supper. Nevertheless, from a theological perspective that argument would come across as rather weak. Leonardo, who was suspected in his own time of heresy, who “came to hold,” according to what Giorgio Vassari wrote in 1550, “some ideas that were not held by any religion, since he placed philosophical being in higher regard than Christian being,” may well have wanted to reflect something else. Specifically, the battle that in his own day was being waged between the followers of Peter (the material Church, of Rome) and those of John the Baptist (the spiritual Church, free, which had for centuries been preaching heresies like Catharism).
Leonardo, disciple of John
Certain aspects of Leonardo’s career lead one to suspect that the artist was deeply committed to what we may call the Church of John. The most eloquent indication of this commitment came to light in 1483, when he delivered to the Milanese Franciscans a canvas for their main altar, which in no measure corresponded to the work they had commissioned him to produce. Instead of a composition to exalt the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception, Leonardo delivered a scene depicting Mary and the Archangel Uriel, together with Jesus and Saint John the Baptist as infants, hiding in a cave during their flight to Egypt. The portrait, which bears no relation to any of the canonic Gospels, left Leonardo and the Franciscans litigating against each other for years, a case that ended with the artist’s being obliged to rework the painting and incorporate several new motifs. Today these two versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks” are to be found respectively at the Louvre and at the National Gallery.
It is known that Leonardo was accused of finding inspiration for his work in the book of a heretical friar named Amadeo de Portugal, who in his writings described the Virgin not as mother of Christ but as symbol of wisdom. In his Apocalipsis Nova he also praised John’s church “of the spirit.” And repudiated the materialism of Peter. Those were times in which the Dominican Savonarola preached from Florence against Pope Alexander VI and accused the pontifical States of sating themselves in riches. Perhaps Leonardo sympathized with this group of intellectuals critical of the institution of Peter; and for this reason, in the first version of the “Virgin of the Rocks,” painted Mary without the halo of sanctity, and Uriel pointing with a finger to John the Baptist, thus indicating which of the children was actually the more important of the two.
Where is the halo?
Its absence is notable, not only in the “Virgin of the Rocks,” but in the “Last Supper” as well. Dr. Brambilla’s restoration reveals no trace of a halo to be found anywhere. Thanks to her work we know that none of the mural’s thirteen figures ever displayed one. Leonardo, breaking all the norms ofthe epoch, did not paint a group of saints... but rather a gathering of men of flesh and blood. And such an obvious observation escaped the notice of Picknett and Prince.
There’s more: Dan Brown dismissed a fundamental key to the Cenacolo. Leonardo da Vinci included a self-portrait among the disciples. To be precise: he is the second figure, counting from rightto left. With long hair and white beard, he represents Judas Tadeo and has his arms crossed while conversing with the Apostle Simon. But what is really strange about the portrait is that Da Vinci is situated at the table with his back turned to Jesus! How are we meant to interpret this novel symbolism? Why has the master painter allied himself against the orthodoxy of his time? And who, in reality, are the figures that surround him and also have their backs turned on Christ?
I wrote my last work, The Secret Supper, in part to provide some answer to these questions. However, the historical investigation I plunged into before actually writing that novel, in the end, led me to conclusions I would never have suspected.
That Leonardo elaborated his Cenacolo in opposition to the religiously correct of his day is reflected not simply by the absence of heads with halos, or by the weapon in the hand of Peter, or even by the artist’s own stance within the scene. One has to observe other details as well. For example, the meal itself. On the table of the “Last Supper,” Jesus is not inaugurating the Eucharist, as he does traditionally in this moment. There is no sign of the Holy Grail, nor of the host or the bread to be broken.According to what Leonardo declared to the Dominicans of Santa Maria, the action of the mural is taken from Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John, when Jesus proclaims, “Verily I say unto you that one of you will betray me.” This scene occurs in the midst of the Jewish Passover, during which tradition calls for lamb to be served at the banquet. In the restoration by Dr. Brambilla, however, it was discovered that it is not lamb that the Twelve are eating that night, but rather fish, oranges, and a bit of wine.Fish? Perhaps Leonardo wanted to return us to that most ancient Christian symbol of all, more or less completely forgotten by the XVth century? But why?
Leonardo, the enigma
I had to take my search for the answer to these questions in a direction never traveled by art historians.Da Vinci was someone who never passed unnoticed. Tall, muscular, with long hair and the build of a giant, he always dressed in white and had some very strange habits for his time.He was never known to pair up with anybody –male or female—and was never seen to eat meat. His manias as a painter were no less eccentric: despite the fact that his best patrons were religious orders, he never painted a crucifixion. It was as if he abhorred the cross as a religious symbol. What is certain is that all these peculiarities are difficult to come across in any single individual…unless he were a Cathar. In effect, the bonhommes or “men of purity,” whom the Dominicans persecuted with so much zeal in Languedoc, were supposedly exterminated at Montségur, in 1244. Today, however, historians acknowledge that numerous Catharist families took refuge in Lombardy, near Milan, where their cult survived in relative peace until the XVth century. Was this where Leonardo established contact with them? Only that would satisfactorily explain some of the artistic anomalies of the Tuscan: the Cathars believed that Jesus was, above all, a man. And Leonardo portrayed him as such in the Cenacolo. They abominated sex, considering everything related to the body as somehow Satanic.Their diet, vegetarian, excluded any food resulting from coitus.Curiously, fish was exempted from this ban; they believed that fish did not procreate through sexual intercourse and therefore permitted its consumption.And as if these clues weren’t enough, the Cathars only recognized one sacrament: the consolamentum.Thus they dubbed the ceremony in which the aspirant to purity was subjected to a sort of laying of hands by the perfect or guide of his community.And isn’t this, the laying of hands, what in reality Jesus appears to be performing in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”?
When I finally managed to obtain the necessary permissions in Milan to actually visit the Cenacolo, Iunderstood everything. The base of its design is at a certain height from the floor, as if to permit a person to stand beneath the figure of the Messiah and receive his “Consolation.” Not the Eucharist. For the Cathars, what Jesus inaugurated that night was a much more powerful and revolutionary sacrament. Its secret had been concealed in the only place where no one would ever look for it: in full view of all. It was –I have no doubt, now, whatsoever—the cleverest of riddles ever posited by the genius of Leonardo.