What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…’The Da Vinci Code’

Posted: May 17, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

The release of the movie “The Da Vinci Code,” based on the popular bestseller by Dan Brown, is getting a lot of attention because of its religious themes and theories on early Christianity and the Holy Grail.

Sheila ffolliott, professor of history and art history, and Whitney Shiner, associate professor of Christian origins, shared their thoughts on the truths and liberties behind this story.

How are art historians and religious studies scholars reacting to all the attention suddenly highlighted on these subjects?

WS: I think most scholars of early Christianity are just amused by the fuss. The book and movie are both fictional, and it would be a mistake for anyone to take them as historical. On the other hand, anything that gets people interested in what the historical Jesus might have been like can lead to more thoughtful consideration of that issue in general.

Sff: I read “The Da Vinci Code” while on vacation, and it was a fun escape. Brown produced a fast-paced, screenplay-like work of fiction. The narrative structure is totally unlikely: its characters moving only in a forward direction with few if any detours, wrong turns or stops for calls of nature, meals or sleep. With such an implausible chain of coincidences, I wonder why people even imagine that there is “truth” in the details?

The book loses any claims it might have for authority from its title: no one with expertise on Leonardo ever calls him “Da Vinci.” His family came from the town Vinci outside Florence. In Renaissance naming conventions he is Leonardo, Michelangelo (Buonarroti) is Michelangelo, and so forth.

Are the descriptions of the specific works in the book mostly accurate or mostly inaccurate? What liberties has the author taken?

Sff: He has taken many liberties, but is hardly the first or the last to do so. The New York Times published an article last year in which Bruce Boucher, curator of sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, pointed them out.

In the book, much emphasis is placed on the role of women in early religious history – Mary Magdalene, for example. Is this accurate? How important were women during this time?

WS: We don’t know with any certainty if Jesus was married. The Gospels don’t say whether he was or not. Most Jewish men at the time of Jesus were married. Given the general lack of attention to women followers of Jesus in the Gospels, it is perfectly possible that no one thought his being married was important enough to mention. It is very unlikely that Jesus was married to anyone mentioned in the Gospels, however, because women were generally referred to as the husband of so and so, and we would expect that for Jesus’ wife as well. In all probability, though, the later church tradition of Jesus being unmarried is correct.

Although first century society was generally run by men, there were important women leaders in the early church, such as Prisca (or Priscilla) who is mentioned by Paul and in Acts. In the one extensive list of names we possess from around 60 AD, the list of greetings in Romans 16, about a third of those mentioned are women, including Phoebe, a deacon, and Junia, who appears to be an apostle. It is likely that Mary Magdalene was important in the church as a witness to the resurrection.

Is Mary Magdalene pictured in the Last Supper, and what was her role in history?

Sff: In art history we use the term “iconography” to describe the investigation of ideas and subject matter in art. Artists followed systems wherein figures wore certain color clothing and held objects associated with them known as attributes. For example, St. Peter holds a key. This makes them recognizable and became routine. St. John, Christ’s “beloved disciple,” traditionally sits on Christ’s right, has long wavy hair and often wears red. In addition, many of Leonardo’s (and other artists’) figures appear androgynous. Conspiracy theorists, however, won’t be persuaded by a historical argument.

WS: Mary Magdalene seems to have become a favorite of the Gnostics, a group in the second century church with their own distinctive teachings. They produced a Gospel of Mary, parts of which survive, in which Mary receives a special revelation from Jesus which sets off an interesting discussion about whether the teaching of women could be accepted, and the gnostic Gospel of Philip mentions Jesus kissing her on the lips (very likely that was an allegory of some gnostic belief or practice). These may be the sources for the Mary-as-wife-of-Jesus speculation, but there is no reason at all to think they contain real historical traditions. The narrative of gnostic gospels is a vehicle for teaching, not an historical record.

What are the good things that have come out of the popularity of the book and movie?

Sff: Anything that calls attention to the Renaissance is good, especially if it encourages people to learn more, visit museums and travel.

Write to at