Wilmington News Journal Article, May 14, 2006
It's hard to picture
Da Vinci wouldn't recognize Dan Brown's novel theories
Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks star in the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code," opening this week.
By DAVID M. STONE
Robert Langdon, hero of "The Da Vinci Code" is no Sherlock Holmes.
A Harvard professor of symbology (a discipline I guess I missed when I got my art history doctorate there), Langdon sees the world upside down, backwards and scrambled. No wonder he finds clues to elaborate conspiracies lurking everywhere, especially in Leonardo's "Last Supper" and "Madonna of the Rocks."
Unlike the famous British pipe-smoking detective, who proceeded from empirical evidence in logical steps, Langdon jumps to the most complex theories to explain his preconceived notions.
He and Dan Brown's book could use a good shave with Ockham's razor. Named after the 14th-century English friar, William of Ockham, this maxim states that the simplest of competing theories - the one with the fewest assumptions - is always to be preferred.
Despite its abuses of certain aspects of art-historical methodology and its wild inventions of Christian history, I loved "The Da Vinci Code." It inspires a new generation to look closely at paintings and to think about their meaning.
Brown brings in the tools of the art history trade - infrared reflectography, X-rays - to analyze paintings. And he pays attention, now and again, to a work's formal arrangement and costume, gesture and facial expression.
The plot relies heavily, though, on Langdon's hair-brained iconographical procedures. And I think I know the source of his confusion.
The most influential pioneer in the study of symbolism in the visual arts, Erwin Panofsky, has often been regarded, even by professional scholars, as the discoverer of "hidden symbolism" in medieval and renaissance paintings. During the 1940s and 1950s, a period in which formalism in art criticism held sway, Panosfky's exploration of meaning was considered new, even radical.
He and other scholars demonstrated the richness of symbolism in the art of Botticelli, Jan van Eyck and other early masters by seeing their works in the context of humanist philosophies and literature.
But the symbolism was not hidden to Renaissance patrons and the learned public. Rather, it was hidden to the formalist school of the early 20th century -- critics such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Bernard Berenson, who had more interest in line and color, tactility and opticality, than in the meaning, say, of the myth of Ganymede or the birth of Venus.
Today's gallery goers are not likely versed in the neoplatonic ideas of Ficino or fluent in the traditions of the Ovid Moralisé which Christianized myths such as Apollo chasing Daphne. That a scene of Daphne turning into a tree could be read as an emblem of Christian chastity - even of the Virgin Mary -- probably strikes many modern viewers as evidence of disguised symbolism.
But for the Renaissance spectator, such allegorical Christianizing of pagan myths was the norm. It was not evidence of a secret cult, but of a unified theory of ancient and modern wisdom, of divine order.
Characters Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, the sexy French cryptographer, are brilliant at extracting clues from numbers, anagrams and compositional devices in paintings. But the "symbology" they find is an invention of Dan Brown -- not Leonardo, who would scarcely understand anything in this book, even if it were written backwards and shown to him in a mirror.
"The Da Vinci Code" is a hoax as elaborate as the paranoid urban legend in the 1960s that Paul McCartney had secretly died. Clues to Paul's demise were everywhere. But you had to know where to look and how to listen, like an initiate in a secret cult. The most famous clue was only audible by playing the Beatles' "Revolution 9" backwards.
"Turn me on, Dead Man."
Obviously Paul was grand master of the Priory of Sion.
David M. Stone is associate professor of Italian art at the University of Delaware. His latest book, with K. Sciberras, is "Caravaggio: Art, Knighthood, and Malta" (Midsea, 2006).