The Last Supper
One of the central images used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the mural Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which depicts Jesus and the twelve disciples gathering for the Passover meal prior to His crucifixion, The Last Supper. It was at this gathering that Jesus shared with the twelve his coming betrayal by one of them, as well as the practice of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. However, Brown's character Sir Leigh Teabing alleges that the painting provides clues within an elaborate conspiracy to conceal a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:
"'It's a matter of historical record,' Teabing said, 'and Da Vinci was certainly aware of that fact. The Last Supper practically shouts to the viewer that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a pair.'"
Leonardo, beginning work on the mural in 1495, was known for his desire to depict images in a realistic fashion and his criticism of other artists for embellishing imagery. Yet some conspiracy theorists, like the character of Teabing, argue that Leonardo's painting is an elaborate clue to a secret he was under charge to protect as a member of the Priory of Sion. It might be helpful to point out at the outset that lacing a very public work with overt clues to a secret he was supposed to protect might be a conflict of interest. It would seem to me that a better motive would need to be suggested for Leonardo to want to reveal the "secret" but only through cryptic symbolism in his paintings. Nevertheless, many allege that the incriminating symbols are in fact there.
The famous allegation is that the figure to the right of Jesus, appearing to swoon in the direction of Peter, standing to his right, is actually Mary Magdalene, not John, as was traditionally understood by the Church and art historians alike. The theory cites the feminine appearance of this figure as obvious evidence that Leonardo was intending to paint a woman, rather than a man. Some indicate that Jesus and the figure to His right are painted as mirror images of each other with symmetrically matching clothing, forming a 'V' shape, which represents a female womb and thus homage to the "divine feminine." Additionally, the shape of Jesus and the mysterious figure to His right are also said to form the shape of the letter "M," perhaps for the word "matrimony" or "Magdalene." I think that such interpretations require far too much of the presupposition that Leonardo had some sort of secret agenda with the painting, which ultimately begs the question. However, the claims of Teabing get even more farfetched. He says, "Oddly, Da Vinci appears to have forgotten to paint the cup of Christ," indicating that the absence of an actual cup in front of Christ proves that the grail is something other than a literal cup- perhaps the bloodline of Jesus Himself!
Such theories are ultimately fantasy. In fact, they seem to rely upon the assumption that Leonardo was a reliable source regarding the event of the last supper, as if he had himself been there. However, Leonardo depicted the scene over 1400 years after it occurred, presumably relying upon the Gospel accounts themselves to do so. Given the likely reliance upon the Gospels, it is no surprise that the cup is not a central element of the depiction as it was certainly not in the Biblical narrative. The legend of the Grail having supernatural power resulting from Jesus' use came much later and has no scriptural precedent. Moreover, the assumption that Leonardo would have even been motivated to lace the painting with clues to a conspiracy is based upon his membership in the Priory of Sion, a legendary secret society which has been proven to have been a hoax invented in the 20th century. Without the Priory connection, there really is no substance to the theory.
Art historians, however, have consistently approached The Last Supper as being both typical of Leonardo and typical of contemporary Florentine trends. They interpret the figures and their expressions as follows: From left, Bartholomew, James the Lesser, and Andrew (his hands up as if to say 'stop!') form a group and are surprised. Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form the next group. Judas is depicted as withdrawn and somewhat sinister as he holds a small bag presumably carrying the silver he received as payment for his betrayal. He appears to be in shadow, symbolizing his spiritual lostness. Peter wields a knife, pointing toward Bartholomew (some say to reference Bartholomew’s future martyrdom, others to foreshadow Peter's actions at Gethsemane), while John swoons in Peter's direction. Thomas, James and Philip are the next group to Jesus' left. Thomas shows distress, while James throws his arms out in dismay. Philip seems to ask for clarification. Finally, Matthew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot form the last group, the former two appearing to consult Simon. Incidentally, this interpretive scheme was confirmed by the discovery of a document known as The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, found in the 19th century.
The feminine appearance of the figure historians almost unanimously interpret to be John is no surprise given that it was typical of Leonardo's depiction of young men, as well as the Florentine tradition of painting John as beardless and youthful. What's more, this character appears to be wearing men's clothing, not those of a woman. The traditional interpretation of art historians seems a much more likely explanation than Teabing's, which relies on too many assumptions to be justifiable. Another problem raised by interpreting this figure as Magdalene is that her presence would reduce the count of the disciples to eleven, with one missing, which contradicts the Biblical and traditional accounts.
While Brown creates a compelling narrative around the imagery of Leonardo, conspiracies and esoteric knowledge, the historical credibility is just not there. However, even if Leonardo had been a member of a secret society with fantastic ideas about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he decided to hide in his paintings, there is no supporting evidence to suggest that anyone should take him seriously in this regard. Even the recently proven hoax of the Priory of Sion set its date of establishment at 1099, a millennium after Christ! Leonardo, painting four-hundred years later, likely did not have accurate insight into the details of the real "last supper," nor does it seem that he had any feasible esoteric agenda.