"The Last Supper" lends itself to a host of theories about hidden imagery and meanings, but the painting's degradation and multiple restorations means that it may differ in i­mportant respects from da Vinci's original production.

Problems with "The Last Supper" Theories

Let’s say that da Vinci did embed secret images in "The Last Supper,” intending for someone to make a discovery one day like Slavisa Pesci did. Would such a secret have any merit? What special knowledge would da Vinci have had about Jesus 1500 years after his death, and why would he hide it in a painting?

Lovers of “The Da Vinci Code” might say that the presence of the images indicate that Dan Brown and other similar writers are on to something mysterious, fundamental and profound. Theories about da Vinci’s work abound in Brown's book, including many about the “Mona Lisa.” But as our article How the Da Vinci Code Doesn’t Work shows, it’s easy to disprove many of the novel’s theories, which is perhaps not surprising or important, except that Brown seems to present his book as based in fact. Yet the main nonfiction source for his book, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” has itself been called inaccurate by scholars.

Skeptics also point out that da Vinci’s painting should be considered a fictional representation of the Last Supper and not an authoritative record of who was there, where they sat and what they did. (Unless, of course, one believes that da Vinci somehow had significant and highly secret knowledge about Jesus’ life.)

If a procedure similar to that performed by Pesci were done with other paintings, would people see hidden images or codes? Whether it’s ghost-haunted photographs or patterns in toast, people often see what they want to see. But again, there is da Vinci’s known taste for mathematics and mirroring techniques. A popular theory, potentially supported by computer analysis, asserts that the “Mona Lisa” is a disguised self-portrait of the painter himself.

Then there are "The Last Supper” theories that are quite easy to refute, such as those surrounding the knife. First, the knife is almost certainly a dinner knife of some sort and not a dagger or weapon, which would make sense, given the setting. Second, analysis of the painting shows that Peter -- and not a disembodied hand or one of the other disciples -- holds the knife, though he does so in an odd position [Source: JayDax]. Da Vinci also created sketches in which he appeared to be practicing how to position Peter’s arm. (You can read about this more in How the Da Vinci Code Doesn’t Work.)

As for the image of Judas -- who, some people say, is the only one leaning away from Jesus in the painting -- he quite clearly isn’t. Several disciples on the left and right portions of the painting lean away from Jesus, so Judas is not the only one.

Is Mary Magdalene in the painting, perhaps as John, with his feminine appearance? Probably not -- unless da Vinci were trying to express a particular message, it would not make sense to leave John out of the painting while depicting the rest of Jesus’ disciples. Second, scholars widely agree that da Vinci accurately represented John, at least by the standards of the 15th century. Art from da Vinci’s era often displays John with long hair and feminine features.

A copy of da Vinci’s painting was created in the 16th century. Conceivably that painting could be used to further test Pesci’s theory, but by the time the reproduction was made, the original version of “The Last Supper” had already experienced some flaking and degradation. The Tonglero Abbey copy is just that -- a copy that may differ in subtle but important respects. After all, there was only one da Vinci.

For more information about hidden messages in the "Last Supper," "The Da Vinci Code" and other related topics, please check out the links on the next page.

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