Are there secret messages in da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'?

The above image is the composite created by Slavisa Pesci. Some of the features he identified may be visible, such as the knights at both ends of the table.
The above image is the composite created by Slavisa Pesci. Some of the features he identified may be visible, such as the knights at both ends of the table.

­­You've likely heard of ­Dan Brown's best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code" and the subsequent movie adaptation. The ­book has sold tens of millions of copies, w­hile the movie, with more than $757 million in box office revenue, stands as the 22nd highest grossing film of all time as of July 2007 [Source: IMDb]. Brown's story centers around the theory that Jesus married his follower Mary Magdalene, had a child with her, and that the descendants of that marriage live today.

­The book also invokes two other popular theories, both of which have been discounted by art historians: that Mary Magdalene, rather than the apostle John, sits on Jesus' right in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting, and that a disembodied hand in the painting holds a knife. For years, amateur theorists and art historians alike have considered whether "The Last Supper" contains hidden imagery. The latest theory du jour has generated so much excitement that several da Vinci-centered Web sites crashed from an overwhelming amount of traffic.

Slavisa Pesci, an information technologist who's taken up an interest in da Vinci's iconic painting, created an interesting visual effect by overlaying a semitransparent, mirrored version of the painting on top of the original. The result is that two figures that look like Templar knights appear at both ends of the table, while someone possibly holding an infant stands to Jesus' left. Pesci also cited the presence of a previously unseen wine goblet in front of Jesus. Pesci suggested that it may be a depiction of the first Eucharist, when Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine at the Last Supper to represent his body and blood. Pesci didn't indicate who he thought the baby might be, but many amateur scholars have said it's the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

As for the meaning of these ostensibly hidden images, Pesci has no comment, though he believes they may be a product of da Vinci's noted love of mathematics [Source: AOL News]. Da Vinci was also known to write from left to right and from right to left, a technique called mirror writing.

Pesci's theory and its possible relationship to da Vinci's mirror writing, while alluring, present some problems. Chief among them, one da Vinci scholar notes, is that the original painting has deteriorated over time [Source: AP]. The mural is no longer as vivid or crisp as it was when da Vinci first unveiled it. The composite image is distorted and blurry, a problem made worse by the original's current, faded condition. Still, Pesci's composite image does seem to show something or someone.

Before we dissect this and other theories about "The Last Supper," let's investigate the painting's history and subject. Leonardo da Vinci completed the work between 1494 and 1498. It's a wall mural in the Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The painting depicts the famous Biblical scene known as the Last Supper, when, shortly before his death, Jesus predicted that one of his followers would betray him. "The Last Supper" actually shows the moments immediately following Jesus' pronouncement, explaining why his followers appear engaged in a frenzied conversation. The painting is considered remarkable for, among many celebrated featur­es, its realism and for portraying the apostles as full of emotion and taking part in an intense discussion rather than simply standing quietly behind the table [Source: The Cenacolo.

Problems with "The Last Supper" Theories

"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.
"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.

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 below.

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Sources

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  • "Eucharist." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. July 30, 2007. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9033174/Eucharist
  • "Experts skeptical on claim of new discovery in Da Vinci's "Last Supper."" The Associated Press. International Herald Tribune. July 25, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/07/25/business/EU-A-E-ART-Italy-Last-Supper.php
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  • Moore, Matthew. "Da Vinci's Last Supper: New conspiracy theory." Telegraph. July 30, 2007. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/30/wvinci130.xml