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Monday 24 January 2011

The Da Vinci Code and medieval symbolism

My hard drive has an impressive collection of letters that I've sent off to the Fortean Times on various occasions but which they didn't bother to print. I was reminded of the following example (originally written in January 2005) on a recent visit to the National Gallery, when I noticed the figure of Saint John in Michelangelo's "Entombment" painting (John is the beardless figure on the left, with long red hair and an orange dress).

The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining book, but like a lot of modern pseudo-historical works it is based on the erroneous supposition that the people of past centuries can be fully understood by assuming they have the same interests, values and beliefs as modern-day people. In fact, the average European of the Middle Ages probably understood a lot more about Christian symbolism than any 21st century professor of Religious Symbology.

An interesting book that was published around the same time as Dan Brown’s novel (but hasn’t sold as many copies) is How to Read a Church by Richard Taylor. With regard to images of the Last Supper (of which Leonardo's is only one among many) Taylor says that the beardless figure always shown next to Jesus is meant to be St John. Apparently it was common practice to depict John with long hair and rather effeminate features. In fact, John is one of the three "women" sometimes shown at the foot of the cross in crucifixion scenes, the other two being Mary Magdalene and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dan Brown says the early church demonized Mary Magdalene because she represented the sacred feminine, but if any disciple was demonized it was Judas Iscariot, a man. According to Taylor's book Mary Magdalene was a much-loved saint, honoured as the first person to see the risen Christ. And the other Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, has always been venerated as the greatest of all the saints, particularly by the Roman Catholic church... the establishment that Brown sees as suppressing sacred femininity and tailoring the Bible to suit its views. This would come as a surprise to the early Protestant reformers, who according to Taylor "... objected to some of the doctrines that the Roman Catholic Church allowed to Mary: that she was without sin, that she remained a virgin throughout her life, and that she was physically assumed into heaven at her death. These teachings seemed to Protestants to be without biblical authority, and to elevate Mary to a position that was more than mortal."

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