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Facts vs. Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
By Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel

A frequent question asked by readers of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is “How much of the novel’s depiction of historical events, people, artwork, and institutions is correct.” The short answer is “Not much.” In fact, the only thing more amazing than Brown’s consistent misrepresentation of facts is a widespread acceptance of his claims, with both reviewers and readers praising the “research” and “knowledge” supposedly evident in his novel. The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code examines, in much detail, the lengthy list of claims made in the Code. Here is a brief look at just a few of the claims made in Brown’s novel and on his web site.

The Divinity of Jesus

Much attention has been given to The Da Vinci Code’s claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. But an even more audacious claim of the novel is that the divinity of Jesus was first raised and established at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, and that prior to that time, no one—not even Jesus’ followers—believed Jesus was anything more than a “mortal prophet” and great man. The fact that this has caused hardly a ripple among fans of the novel indicates a revealing (and hardly surprising) lack of knowledge about early Church history and belief.

There is plenty of evidence that the early Christians, dating back to Jesus’ time on earth, believed that Jesus of Nazareth was divine. In his seminal study, Early Christian Doctrines, noted scholar J.N.D. Kelly writes that “the all but universal Christian conviction in the [centuries prior to the Council of Nicaea] had been that Jesus Christ was divine as well as human. The most primitive confession had been ‘Jesus is Lord’ [Rom 10:9; Phil 2:11], and its import had been elaborated and deepened in the apostolic age.”

The Council of Nicaea did not define that Jesus, the Son of God, was divine (since that was accepted by all Christians) but addressed the issue of the exact relationship between the Son and the Father: Are they equal? One in substance? Two Persons? The Council specifically addressed and condemned the popular heresy of that time, called Arianism, which insisted that the Son was a lesser god, created by the Father at some point in time and not eternally existent.

The Real Jesus vs. the Gnostic Jesus

One of the more laughable claims of Brown’s novel is that the early Christians “literally” stole Jesus and shrouded his “human message . . . in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power”. The novel claims that the gnostic Jesus is far more human than the divinized Jesus of the four canonical Gospels contained in the Christian Bible.

That sounds fine—unless you actually read the so-called “gnostic gospels” and compare them to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Jesus of the gnostic writings is rarely recognizable as a Jewish carpenter, teacher, and prophet dwelling in first century Palestine; instead, he is often described as a phantom-like creature who lectures at length about the “deficiency of aeons”, “the mother”, “the Arrogant One”, and “the archons”—all terms that only the gnostic elite would comprehend, hence their secretive, gnostic character.

In reality, the “gnostic gospels” aren’t gospels at all in the sense of the four canonical gospels, which are filled with narrative, concrete details, historical figures, political activity, and details about social and religious life. On this point, as on others, Brown has it completely wrong and backwards.

Leonardo da Vinci

On a webpage titled “Bizarre True Facts from The Da Vinci Code . . .”, Brown writes that Leonardo was a “prankster and genius” who is “widely believed to have hidden secret messages within much of his artwork.” Widely believed by whom? It’s difficult to find any reputable art scholar or historian who would agree with that remark. But according to Brown, “most scholars agree that even Da Vinci's most famous pieces—works like The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Madonna of the Rocks—contain startling anomalies that all seem to be whispering the same cryptic message.”

First, no scholar would ever refer to the great Italian artist as “Da Vinci” since his given name was “Leonardo”; “da Vinci” indicates the province he was from. Secondly, few, if any, scholars would concur with Brown’s dramatic assertion. Thirdly, there are no “startling anomalies” in any of the paintings Brown mentions. Any such anomalies can only be found in his novel and conspiracy-heavy books such as The Templar Revelation, which happens to be the source of almost all of Brown’s “research” into Leonardo. As for the cryptic message, which one is Brown referring to? He claims the Mona Lisa is an androgynous self-portrait, insists The Last Supper depicts Mary Magdalene at the right of Jesus, and claims Madonna of the Rocks (better known as The Virgin of the Rocks) depicts John the Baptist scandalously blessing the Christ-Child.

Brown’s site states that this cryptic message “hints at a shocking historical secret which allegedly has been guarded since 1099 by a European secret society known as the Priory of Sion.” Nevermind that the Priory of Sion was founded in the 1950s in France by a political radical, that its mysterious history is an admitted fabrication, and that it has been proven more than once to be a complete hoax. And yet the Priory of Sion is a central element in the plot and logic (so to speak) of The Da Vinci Code.

The Virgin of the Rocks

Brown and his main character, symbologist Robert Langdon, state that “the nuns” of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception gave Leonardo specific dimensions and themes about a commissioned painting for an altar triptych. But there were no nuns in the Confraternity; it was an all-male group, consisting of either brothers, or lay men, or a combination of both. More importantly, Brown states that “the nuns” had asked for a painting that would include Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, and the angel Uriel, and he followed that request, but his first painting was filled with “explosive and disturbing details”.

Actually, Leonardo did not follow the Confraternity’s directives as to the subject matter of the painting. The original contract was to include a depiction of God the Father overhead, with two prophets on the side panels (The Virgin of the Rocks was the centerpiece). There has been much scholarly discussion about the exact nature of the contract and what exactly transpired between Leonardo and the Confraternity. What is clear is that Leonardo deviated substantially from the original plan for the subject matter—not that it contained “several disturbing ‘un-Christian’ anomalies”.

The Da Vinci Code correctly notes that there are two versions of this painting—the earlier one is in the Louvre in Paris and the later one is housed at the National Gallery in London. But Brown describes the painting as a “a five-foot-tall canvas”, when it is actually 198 x 123 centimeters, or about 6.5 feet tall (1.99 meters tall x 1.22 meters wide, according the Louvre web site). It was originally painted on wood panel, but was transferred to canvas; the second version of the painting, in London, is still on a wood panel.

In the novel, the main female character, Sophie, picks up the painting and moves it will relative ease; it is described as flexing as she pulls it from the wall. In reality, she likely wouldn’t have been able to move it or pick it up, and it’s doubtful that it would flex. Normally, such artistic license wouldn’t be much of a concern, but Brown insists his details are accurate, claims that he attended art school in Spain, and points out that his wife is an art historian. And yet he is completely wrong about the dimensions of a painting, even though the information can be obtained in a few minutes at the library or on the internet.

Opus Dei

One of Brown’s “bizarre true facts” is that Opus Dei exists and “has recently completed construction of a $47 million, 133,000-square-foot American Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.” Why this is considered bizarre is, well, bizarre. Far more bizarre than the existence of a personal prelature of the Catholic Church - erroneously described as “a church” in the Code - is the character of a murderous albino Opus Dei monk. Never mind that Opus Dei is not a religious order and that it consists of mostly lay people, with less than 2% of its members being priests. As others have noted, Brown’s mythical Opus Dei has simply taken the place of the Jesuits, an order commonly depicted as murderous, vile, and corrupt by anti-Catholics writing in the 1800s and well into the 1900s.

More Clear Facts About Muddy Fiction

The Da Vinci Code states that over a three hundred period in the medieval era, the Catholic Church was responsible for burning a total of five million women at the stake. That’s quite a bit off of the best current estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 of men and women killed during the four hundred years from 1400 to 1800—certainly a significant number, but not comparable to the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges. Many of those deaths didn’t involve burning. Witches were hanged, strangled, and beheaded as well. In addition, witch-hunting was not woman-hunting: at least twenty percent of all suspected witches were male. Despite what the novel clams, midwives were not especially targeted; nor were witches liquidated as obstacles to professionalized medicine and mechanistic science.

Another glaring error is found in character Robert Langdon’s explanation of the origin of the tetragrammaton—YHWH (pronounced as Yahweh)— the sacred name of God, which observant Jews believe should not be uttered. Langdon claims that YHWH comes from the name Jehovah, which he insists is an androgynous union between “the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic name for Eve, Havah”. A quick trip to the encyclopedia (or theological dictionary, if you prefer) shows that Langdon is wildly off the mark. The name “Jehovah” didn’t even exist until the thirteenth century at the earliest (and wasn’t common until the sixteenth century), and is an English word. It was created by artificially combining the consonants of YHWH (or JHVH) and the vowels of Adonai (which means “Lord”), the name substituted for YHWH in the Old Testament by Jews. The Hebrew—not “pre-Hebraic”—word for Eve is hawwâ, (pronounced “havah”), which means “mother of all living”. There is absolutely nothing androgynous about any of this, but that dubious assertion is in keeping with the neognostic flavor of the novel.

Possibly Brown’s silliest mistake about the Templars is charging that Pope Clement V not only burnt hundreds of Templars but had their ashes “tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber River”. That the statement is put in the mouth of his “Royal Historian” character, Teabing, only adds to its irony. The largest burnings of Templars actually took place in Paris, with smaller holocausts in three other French cities and possibly Cyprus. There’s no record of Knights burnt at Rome. In any event, the pope couldn’t have dumped any remains in the Tiber since he resided at Avignon in southern France and not in Rome. Also, the Templars had nothing to do with gothic architecture, despite Brown’s claims that they had everything to do with it.

The Code claims that the Merovingians founded Paris. Nope. This is a mistake no educated Parisian would make, inasmuch as Paris was originally a Gallic village called Lutetia Parisiorum that was expanded into a city by the Romans.

On and on it goes, with faulty and often blatantly incorrect statements about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Vatican, paganism, early Christianity, medieval Christianity, modern day Catholicism, the life and work of Leonardo, secret societies, the origins of the English language, Constantine, and much more. All of it is exposed in The Da Vinci Hoax, described by Francis Cardinal George as the “definitive debunking” of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel.