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Thursday, July 27, 2006

What makes it great? (part 2) 

For those of you just joining us, I am in the midst of a short series of posts delving into Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. I believe some of the greatness of this masterpiece has been diluted in the midst of Dan Brown's novel and the ensuing movie starring Tom Hanks. What is most unfortunate is that people have taken this fictional and fanciful story and elevated it to the same level as truth, thus undermining the authority of the Bible.

For example, one of the key plot elements for the conspiracy theory put forth in The Da Vinci Code involves an interpretation of Leonardo's work that replaces John the Apostle with Mary Magdalene. Not only would no credible art historian (or student, no less) give that historically preposterous suggestion a moment's thought regarding the painting itself, but the claim also runs completely contrary to the true biblical account and the unanimous testimony of the early church.

In his novel, the author lays out his argument that the figure to the right of Christ is actually a woman - specifically Mary Magdalene - and that the artist used her as a visual clue to reveal a great conspiracy around the fact that Jesus was in fact married. There is sufficient evidence to flatly deny this ridiculous theory in the painting alone, much of which points to more of what makes the painting such a brilliant work of art to begin with.

Yesterday, we analyzed the composition mainly around the arrangement of the disciples to demonstrate just how revolutionary both the painting and the painter were. (By the way, as a complete tangent, if Dan Brown wanted to have even an ounce of credibility he might have at least done enough research to know that supposed experts constantly calling the artist "Da Vinci" is akin to supposed theologians repeatedly referring to the historical Jesus as "Of Nazareth", as if that was his last name.) Anyway, the author inserts one of his more outlandish, far-fetched, and frankly inaccurate clues in chapter 58:

"Venturing into the more bizarre," Teabing said, "note that Jesus and His bride appear to be joined at the hip and are leaning away from one another as if to create this clearly delineated negative space between them."

Even before Teabing traced the contour for her, Sophie saw it-the indisputable \/ shape at the focal point of the painting. It was the same symbol Langdon had drawn earlier for the Grail, the chalice, and the female womb.

(p. 244)

Bearing in mind that the "expert" characters in this story don't know any more than the guy who invented them, it seems evident that Dan Brown was absent the day they covered perspective in junior high art class. What is the focal point for The Last Supper?

Take a moment to follow the lines of the disciples' eyes, the motion of their arms, even the flow of their robes. Many consider this painting to be a classic primer in one-point perspective. Pretty much everyone agrees that everything points to Jesus.

This becomes even more striking when understood in the broader context of the refectory. Every single element in the painting, and even in the room, points to the head of Christ as the focal point. Shelley Esaak, an artist, illustrator, designer, writer and educator, puts it this way:
...I see a composition with five figural pyramids (i.e.: 3-3-1-3-3) that strike a superb balance all the way across the painting. Their placement is such that one's eye is always directed to the Big Guy pyramid in the middle, whose head is right in front of the vanishing point.

...I see an incredible composition that I might have come up with, myself - if only I was five-bizillion-percent better, as an artist, and somewhere in Leonardo's league. (Or even on Leonardo's farm team.) Hidden letters, no.

Just to put the theory further to rest, the so-called feminine characteristics used to paint John the Beloved were commonplace among Renaissance artists as a depiction of youthfulness and affection. You would be hard pressed to find a single image of a rugged, bearded, or otherwise genuinely masculine apostle John among the countless paintings of the same scene from the same period. As Fred Sanders from Focus on the Family notes, "Look at any five paintings of The Last Supper from a century on either side of Leonardo, and you will see the same kind of face for John. Either all the artists were in on the conspiracy, or there isn't one." Consider Leonardo's treatment of the locust-eating, judgment-preaching John the Baptist and ask yourself if he looks "feminine"?

Additionally, I invite you to consider just some of the following egregious errors in Brown's treatment of the Jesus and Mary controversy:
Well, I think you get my point, but I'm sorry to say I've wandered far astray from my original intent to plumb the depths of the greatness of Leonardo's The Last Supper. Join us next time as we look at the use of light and shadow.

... to be continued ...

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