The Da Vinci Code & Mary Magdalene

Michel A Rizzotti

The popularity of The Da Vinci Code put Opus Dei and the Church at the center of a controversial limelight. As a result it created a reactionary backlash from the more conservative faction of the Church. Dan Brown’s book made accessible to millions of readers the topic of the sacred feminine. And created a long overdue public debate on Mary Magdalene. A subject matter that had been discredited for the past two millenniums. Relegated as a profane reality by a religious hierarchy. The book rekindles a spiritually sensitive subject of Christianity that could no longer be overshadowed.

Paris and London

Dan Brown’s story begins in Paris. The heroine is Sophie Neveu, a French freckled red haired with a startling pedigree. The book was published shortly after Dominique de Villepin’s famous stance at the UN challenging the US’ right to wage an illegal war against Iraq. Shortly after, “freedom fries” became the rage in Washington and a favorite American antidote for renowned French arrogance. However, history has taught France a tough lesson with its colonial ambitions in Algeria. And decades after its involvement, it is still paying the price for its misadventure. Some of the words uttered by the main villain in the book reverberates a global concern about revenge. They will remain embedded as a reminder of the folly of grand illusions of anyone who wants to save the world and play god with history. As the Teacher asks the professor:

Are you with me or against me.

For the most part, the story revolves around museums and churches in Paris and London. The mystery begins with the murder of the Louvre curator and ends in a church’s rectory located in Scotland where the secret of the Holy Grail lies. The author keeps his readers guessing by alternating clues between famous and invaluable works of art, legends, myths, math trivia, poetry, anagrams, ancient monuments and secret rituals. Switching between the interpretation of famous paintings, the Gospels and the more complex and obscure secrets behind ornate gothic churches and temples.

The Holy Grail

The first Code is revealed with the display of the body of the murdered Louvre curator Saunière lying in the position of the famous Vitruvian Man. Saunière and Leonardo da Vinci we find out were both Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion: a secret society created to safeguard the secret of the Holy Grail. One of Christendom’s most famous and enduring legends.

In Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, cup or vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers. The connection of Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail legend dates from Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie (late twelfth century) in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Great Britain; building upon this theme, later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood while interring him and that in Britain he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle, appearing first in works by Chrétien de Troyes (Loomis 1961). The legend may combine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers.

The development of the Grail legend has been traced in detail by cultural historians: It is a gothic legend, which first came together in the form of written romances, deriving perhaps from some pre-Christian folklore hints, in the later 12th and early 13th centuries. The early Grail romances centered on Percival and were woven into the more general Arthurian fabric. The Grail romances started in France and were translated into other European vernaculars; only a handful of non-French romances added any essential new elements. Some of the Grail legend is interwoven with legends of the Holy Chalice. ─Wikipedia

Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed

Who in their right mind would have thought that a professor of Religious Symbology would one day be the hero of a best selling mystery that would sell over 30 million copies worldwide. Robert Langdon is a Harvard University professor whose field is the study and interpretation of ancient sacred symbols. The night of the murder he happens to be in Paris as an invited guest to give a lecture and slide show on the pagan symbolism hidden in the stones of Chartres’ Cathedral.

Langdon is the writer of a manuscript entitled “Symbols of the Lost Sacred Feminine” yet to be published. The book deals with the history of goddess worship with several chapters on Mary Magdalene that are considered to be quite controversial. It prompted the editor to send the manuscript to a number of serious historians and art luminaries for their endorsement prior to the printing of Advance Reading Copies. Among the recipients of the draft was Jacques Saunière, who was found dead in the museum. Langdon and the curator both share a passion for the history of the sacred feminine and Mary Magdalene. They felt that the goddess’ role in the development of religious thought had been undermined by the curia.

The plot moves quickly after the discovery of Robert Langdon’s name written in blood next to the murdered body of Saunière on the Louvre’s museum floor. The professor becomes judicial police chief Bezu Fache’s prime suspect. He is saved from the constricting hold of the police by Saunière’s granddaughter Sophie Neveu, who happens to be a police cryptologist. She helps Langdon escape from the scene of the crime. Free to pursue their quest to resolve the mystery behind the murder. They begin their Harvard scavenger hunt.

Da Vinci and Saunière

Saunière was a devoted Leonardo da Vinci expert. Both were Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion. Most of the clues in the story revolve around Saunière’s use of da Vinci’s interpretation of paintings and crafts that point to the nature and identity of the elusive Holy Grail.

Langdon weighed his words carefully. “I was just thinking that Saunière shared a lot of spiritual ideologies with Da Vinci, including a concern over the Church’s elimination of the sacred feminine from modern religion.”

As a former Grand Master of the Priory of Sion Leonardo da Vinci’s works hold the key to the secret society’s reverence for the sacred feminine. He shares with Saunière an ongoing duty to preserve the secret of the tomb of Mary Magdalene and the documents that hold the truth about the divine feminine. As the story nears its final code we find out that the word APPLE is the key word that opens the precious keystone.

The symbol of the fall of the sacred feminine.

At this point we would like to alert the reader to one of the more popular and enduring misconceptions regarding the symbol of the fall. And to the fact that there is no mention of an apple in Genesis III. Eve simply eats a “fruit from the tree”. The popular misconception is so embedded in our psyche that it made its way into the logo of a famous brand of computers. The discrepancy shows how myths evolve and become intertwined with reality and become part of our acceptable way of thinking.

One explanations as to how the confusion occurred, and not necessarily the correct one, is the following: When the Bible was translated into Latin the word malum ─meaning evil, implying Eve’s doing─ became identified with the words pyrus malus ─meaning apple tree. It might be added that the confusion was not dispelled by the Magisterium and seems to confirm our heroes distrust about the Church’s motive in maintaining Eve’s guilt in the fall of mankind.

The Teacher

The killer of  Saunière is an albino named Silas. He is a member of Opus Dei ─a powerful and secretive order established as a personal prelature by Pope John Paul II. Silas is a protégé of a misguided Bishop named Aringarosa, who commands the albino to blindly obey the Teacher’s directives. He is told that his unconditional obedience will save the Church. Silas is unknowingly being manipulated by the obscure Teacher to find a mysterious keystone in the possession of the Priory of Sion, of which Saunière was the last surviving member and Grand Master. The Teacher’s goal is to take possession of the keystone with the intention to reveal to the world its secret content and the identity of the Holy Grail. A secret so startling that it could destroy the Roman Catholic Church.

The Teacher who single-handedly plots to destroy the Church is non other than Leigh Teabing an expert on the Holy Grail and former British Royal Historian, a peer of Robert Langdon. He has vowed vengeance against the Priory of Sion for having rescinded on their promise to reveal the secret of the Holy Grail at the end of the millennium. Having said this, we should not be surprised to find out that the Teacher, with his evil intentions, is deliberately spreading inaccurate facts about early developments of the Church and its canon.

The following are among a few of the many discrepancies outlined by the Teacher:

Jesus Christ’s life was not “recorded by thousands of followers across the land”. Scholars now agree that none of the writers of the Gospels new or ever met Jesus. These account were written in koiné ─Greek, roughly between 70 to 100 AD, more than 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were written by Jewish scribes who were living in a culturally Hellenized Palestine under Roman occupation. In all probability Jesus spoke Aramaic ─part of a northwest Semitic group of languages which includes Hebrew. And in all likelihood Jesus did not read or write. The same applies to all of his apostles, who were for the most part mere fishermen and peasants. In ancient Judaism, reading and writing was a closely guarded craft and privilege held by the scribes and priests.

There were not “eighty” gospels that were considered for the New Testament as stated by the Teacher. And Constantine did not commission a “new Bible”. The New Testament –twenty seven book canon─ as we know it today, was first documented as a list of books that were felt appropriate to read, and put together by Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria, circa 367 CE.

The Dead Sea Scrolls ─also known as the Qumran documents─ were not “found” in the 1950’s but in 1947. They were not among the earliest “Christian records” but were a description of rules of conduct of an early Jewish community, most likely the Essene. This community was primarily made up of single celibate men who dedicated their lives to spiritual purification in preparation for the impending “end of time”. A time when God would intervene to overthrow the forces of evil and reward the righteous. Some scholars have surmised that Jesus had a similar apocalyptic world view as the Essenes and might have shared their rule of conduct. Consequently, contrary to Teabing’s assertion, Jewish custom did not forbid men to be unmarried.

There is no scholarly evidence or proof that Mary Magdalene was connected to the House of Benjamin or that she was a descendant of King David. Even less so that she was pregnant at the crucifixion.

Moreover, Q is not a book written by Jesus. And it is not a surviving source being secretly guarded by the Church. Q ─an abbreviation from the German word quelle meaning “source”─ simply refers to a hypothetical “source” of Jesus sayings that scholars have found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

And lastly: The Gnostic Gospels does not refer to a collection of the Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls documents but is the title of a book written by Elaine Pagels.

As it happens these discrepancies do not interfere with the book’s core premise about the fact that some of Leonardo’s clues about the feminine mystique highlight the overshadowed and discredited Mary Magdalene…

Mary Magdalene

Although Jesus speaks consistently of his absent Father, it is his mother that is present at the most crucial moments in his life. First and foremost, she gives birth to Jesus. As his mother she is responsible for his education that will eventually prepare him for his divine mission. She is present at the wedding at Cana when she asks Jesus to perform his first miracle instigating his public ministry. She is present in the background following her son throughout his preaching. She has the painful fate to witness her son’s humiliating crucifixion under the hands of the Roman occupying power. Having said that, it is another Mary, and none of the 12 apostles, that has the privilege to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1)

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In 1969, shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, the Catholic Church officially disclosed that the enduring belief that identified Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was not based on any factual or scriptural evidence, henceforth clearing her name. The magisterium also asserted that Mary Magdalene should not be confused with Mary the sister of Lazarus, from the town of Bethany. Mary Magdalene should be identified with a person from a town called Magdala located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdalene. The Church’s position is that it refers to a place named Magdal ─meaning tower or fortress. However, such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. In the first century such location was overtaken by the prosperous Greek city of Taricheae.

The surname “Magdala” ─Hebrew Migdal = tower, fortress; Aramaic Magdala─ should be viewed as a symbolic attribute in terms of “fortitude”. Similar in fashion to John who was also known as John the Baptist. Or Simon who was given the metaphorical name the “rock” by Jesus and became henceforth known as Peter ─meaning rock.

During Jesus’ ministry, a number of women followed their teacher but typically stayed in the background of the 12 male apostles. In Mark (15:40-41) and Luke (8:1-3) we find out that these women, including Mary Magdalene, provide financial support to Jesus’ ministry. And in break with tradition, Jesus (Luke 10:38-42) encourages Mary, sister of Martha, in her decision to attend his teachings rather than stay home to take care of her household duties.

At the time, women were regarded as the property of men, or as being under their jurisdiction. The only exception were women of wealth. In that era men and women worshiped in separate places. And as part of their morning devotion, men were thankful to God for not being “born a woman”.

Early on Jesus cures Mary Magdalene of her possession of seven demons. Possession was a term used to imply an illness for which there was no known explanation or cure. Somehow this is still valid today.

The Gospels recounts that in the town of Bethany a woman with an alabaster jar anoints Jesus’ feet with “very expensive ointment” ─some estimate the value at one year’s wages. The description of the scene is to say the least very sensuous. At Jesus’ request she is told to keep the remainder of the “costly” oil for his burial. And the woman that will be present with the ointment at the burial turns out to be Mary Magdalene. The apostles however, are scandalized by such an act of devotion and waist. They question why so much money should be spent so frivolously instead of feeding the poor. Furthermore, it is considered a disgrace for a woman to touch an unmarried man. Jesus tells them to leave her alone, because she has done for him a good work. And Jesus probably knew better than to argue with a wealthy Jewish woman. The surprising part about this episode is that it is recounted in all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Only three other stories are shared by the four Gospels: the baptism of Jesus, the multiplication of loaves, and the crucifixion.

The Hebrew word messiah means anointed. In Jewish tradition the anointment is typically performed by a priest during the sacred coronation of a king. The story about Jesus’ anointment in the Gospels is starling to say the least. One could interpret the passage as the anointment by a woman of Jesus the Messiah. A symbolic act of total devotion and respect. It is not performed by any of Jesus’ twelve male apostles who considered the act as scandalous and against Jewish tradition.

In the eight times a list of women is mentioned in the Gospels, on every occasion except one Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. Only at the crucifixion is Mary the mother of Jesus mentioned first and Mary Magdalene last. The Mary whose womb gave birth to Jesus is present at his death. Whereas it is Mary of Magdala who discovers the empty tomb that is a witness of the risen Christ.

In all four Gospels, the women that accompany Jesus during his last week are also present at the crucifixion. They alone remain present until the end, whereas all male disciples flee. It is also stated that the female followers were the first to witness that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. In the Gospel of John it is Mary Magdalene alone who acknowledges the empty tomb. While in the other versions it is Mary Magdalene accompanied by other women.

I have seen the Lord, and he said these things to me. (John 20:18)

Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the risen Lord. She is also chosen as a messenger to spread the good news ─ gospel. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means messenger. Therefore, Mary Magdalene and the other women are to be equally considered apostles.

The Metaphor as Code

The whole premise of The Da Vinci Code is the quest for the Holy Grail : the legendary cup at Jesus’ Last Supper. Alternatively described as a holy cup, royal blood or holy bloodline. Brown’s mystery has proposed some controversial ideas about Mary Magdalene and the meaning of the Sangraal.

We would like to introduce at this point the role of the metaphor in terms of symbolic significance that might hold the key to the Holy Grail:

I am the door ─gate  (John 10:9)

I am the way (John 14:6)

In other words, Jesus in the Gospels uses the metaphor to reveal his message.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community ─Church. (Mat 16:18)

Jesus tells Simon that he is a rock ─peter literally means rock─ and he will be known as the rock on which Jesus will build his community. An additional indication that the metaphor holds a vital role in the meaning of the Holy Grail.

The last supper is where Jesus shares his last meal, breaks the bread and drinks from the sacred cup. The scene is the center of the whole Catholic faith. And the Eucharist is a sacrament that faithful Catholics partake in Church with the holy communion. At the Last Supper Jesus shares the bread and wine with his apostles and says these words.

This is my body…This is my blood (Mark 14: 22-24)

Again we would like to stress the importance of the metaphor as the great code that offers additional clues as to the secret of the Holy Grail.

The metaphor is a figure of speech that implies a shift in meaning and a spiritual code. A break in the normal use of language. Simultaneously breaking with the normal social conventions and religious practices. Simply put, the metaphorical interpretation of the Gospels could be considered as a keystone behind the last supper and the Holy Grail. What the cup holds is not wine but the metaphorical sacrificial blood. It could be added that the metaphor is a stark contradiction to the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Furthermore, if Simon is the metaphorical rock on which Jesus will build his Church, is Mary Magdala, who was the first to witness the risen Lord, to be considered the metaphorical tower that will be built on that rock ─foundation. In addition, the name Madgal-eder also appears in Micah (4:8-10) and refers symbolically to a tower or stronghold of the flock. Mary Magdalene then, will stand on the rock as the stronghold for all future Christian communities.

The quest for the Holy Grail is the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene. A journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one.

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The Real Mary Magdalene; The National Geographic Channel – YouTube.com

(1) I would like to emphasize that my interest in the subject does not stem from my personal beliefs in or devotion to the sacred feminine, but is based on the observation that the goddess principle has been overshadowed in the Judeo-Christian sacred narratives. This leads me to conclude that our so-called western civilization lives by some type of perceptual scotoma ─a blind spot in a visual field of reality. This cultural and religious trait is part of my ongoing study and interest.

My interest also stems from the fact that Pope Pius XII, in the dogma of the Assumption, refers to the Mother of God as the Heavenly Queen. And in the Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, dated June 29 1995, Mary is referred to as the Queen of heaven and earth. In several passages of the Old Testament we can readily find a goddess named Ashera who is permanently chastised by a jealous God. Ironically, that same goddess is also known by the title of Queen of Heaven.

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