A Da Vinci Inanity; Catholic Fashion No-No’s

Apologia Pro the Disciplines of Liberal Arts

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- I guess that silliness never takes a vacation. Benedict XVI retreats to the Alps, French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy sojourns in New Hampshire, but tabloid headlines keep churning out inanities.

During a long-awaited vacation the last week of July, I foolishly checked my e-mail. My box was liberally peppered with questions regarding the “new Da Vinci discovery.”

For those fortunate enough to have missed this flurry of discussion, Slavisa Pesci, an Italian computer analyst, took a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and digitally superimposed a reverse image of that famous painting on top of it. He claims that the result showed a new composition with additional figures.

One “hidden” figure seemed be a knight while the other — surprise, surprise — appeared to be a woman holding a baby. Any resemblance to the plot of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” is probably not coincidental. Readers of that pseudohistorical potboiler will recall that in it, Leonardo is portrayed as having included Mary Magdalene in the “Last Supper” because she was really the wife of Jesus.

If Pesci had seen Mickey Mouse there would have been no worldwide publicity. Now, how an office worker misuses his coffee break is his prerogative, but the attention granted by all the major press agencies to this “discovery” borders on the irresponsible. Alarming, too, was the digital stampede of Web-surfers. So many people flocked to the site to view these images that it crashed.

More disappointing than people’s passing curiosity with the latest gimmick, is the credulity of otherwise serious individuals. An astonishing number of people think that this picture provides some kind of evidence to support Dan Brown’s fictional theories. (I spent a family picnic dodging a relative who fervently believed that I had been recruited by the Church to cover up this terrible secret!) It seems like a high-tech version of seeing the Virgin Mary in a pie crust!

Art historians wasted no time drop-kicking this theory to the nonsense abyss from which it sprang — Leonardo didn’t have digital imaging, the painting is too damaged to conduct this kind of experiment, no drawings indicate that he ever composed paintings this way, etc. — but one is left with the lingering fear that the world has succumbed to the Dan Brown School of the Liberal Arts.

This brief, easy program teaches aspiring students who unfortunately skipped world literature in high school, slept through CCD classes or eschewed majors in the humanities for more job-friendly fields, how to understand art, history or theology without ever having to open a nonfiction book.

The Brown method starts with a conspiracy theory regarding a major institution (the Catholic Church is a perennial favorite). Then one takes a big-name (and long-dead) thinker, artist or scientist who knew a scandalous secret, but out of fear only revealed it through secret codes, hidden figures or ambiguous writings.

After rewriting a few historical episodes to fit the theory, one can then sit back and let experts do the work of unraveling. It’s a guaranteed laugh all the way to the bank. In this respect, it makes for a very successful business school.

Moreover, people will often choose to believe the simplistic sound-bite version of the facts over the more complicated, thoroughgoing explanations. But the discipline of the humanities is exactly that: a discipline. It requires extensive study and accumulation of knowledge. There are no shortcuts.

In art history, those who specialize in iconography (not symbology!) — the study of the meaning of images — have to learn the history of each particular image from the Annunciation to the Last Supper. They must study placement, function and technical execution as well as the specific artist’s whole body of work and the prevailing artistic considerations of his time and place.

It is a long process to understand a work of art insofar as it can ever be completely understood. The same love and attention that one puts into discovering the many facets of a friend must be also given to a painting.

But art history, a relatively new discipline, has been dismissed as a sub-science ever since it was dubbed “art in the dark” in colleges. Other areas of humanistic studies have suffered the same fate.

Perhaps the discipline that has most suffered from Dan Brown deconstruction is theology, once known as the queen of the sciences, and one of the oldest and most respected disciplines.

Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion,” typifies the problem when he refuses to accept theology as a science. If you can’t look at it under a microscope then it must not exist. Both Brown and Dawkins take a pretty reductive view, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Catholic theology is the systematic study of God by the light of both natural reason and divine revelation. This science looks to the prophetic wisdom of the Old Testament and to the fullness of God’s self-revelation through his son Jesus Christ in order to deepen in its knowledge of God.

It also benefits from and enriches its understanding of sacred Scripture through 2,000 years of continuous study. Some the greatest intellects in the history of mankind have contributed to theological knowledge, from the Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius and Augustine to the great contemporary contributions of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Language, history and geography are but a small part of theological studies. In the rigorous ecclesiastical system, prospective theologians must first complete an intensive program of philosophical studies lasting a minimum of two years before even opening a theology textbook. It takes at least seven more years of university study before one can call himself or herself a Catholic theologian.

For comparison’s sake, in medical school, nine years are required for a medical degree, just as for a theologian. Just as it takes many years of preparation before one is entrusted to heal the body, so many are required before caring for souls.

Faith and prayer, things that Brown and Dawkins do not understand, play a large part in theology as well. Seeking God’s help in understanding him and asking to serve him better, presuppose a humility that is often scoffed upon by secularists.

When Dan Brown blithely suggests that the Gospels can be mixed and matched at will because in his mind Church history is written by the victors, he mocks the hard work and enormous sacrifice and commitment that theological training presupposes.

So to all of you who are preparing for another semester of ecclesiology, Christology or biblical Greek, keep up the good work. To the purveyors of time-wasting publicity ploys, give it a rest!


  1. “I guess that silliness never takes a vacation.”

    Very well put! I will be using it in my writings.

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