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he “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 Revelation of the Templars. 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 Revelation of the Templars 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?