The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra, Atria (March 21, 2006), 336 pages
The novel starts with the death of Beatrice d’Este, the wife of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan during childbirth. Three days before this event, a man calling himself the Soothsayer had sent a letter to Rome predicting this. The year is 1497 and and Leonardo da Vinci has been commissioned by the Ludovico Sforza, to paint The Last Supper in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Soothsayer’s weekly letters also suggest that there is a hidden message in the painting and it should be stopped.
Agostino Leyre, a father in the Secretariat of Keys of the Papal States, a secret congregation, is sent to Milan to investigate the matter. The father was chosen since he was an expert in codes and had analyzed previous messages of the Soothsayer. His only clue in finding the Soothsayer is a riddle in one of the letters. The Father chooses to stay in Santa Maria delle Grazie and starts working on the puzzle with the help of Father Alessandro, the convent’s librarian.
While there are some initial attempts at solving the puzzle, it is pushed to the background as the Father learns more about various heretic in Milan and what they want to accomplish. About sixty years back, during the time of Pope Eugene VI, the Patriarch of Florence and held a council which could have succeeded in altering the course of Christendom. The Patriarch, Cosimo de’ Medici had purchased the books of Aristotle and Plato and learned about the immortality of the soul and how heavenly bodies were responsible for everything. This knowledge was not palatable to the Church and hence the current Duke of Milan wanted to hide this information publicly using art, with the help of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo da Vinci, the major character in this book appears in every other chapter, dressed in white, looking like a giant, setting puzzles for the monks to solve while working with his disciples on bigger secrets in the convent. The community of monks in the convent know that Leonardo is working on concealing a mystery in The Last Supper, but they are unable to find out the sepcifics. Leonardo already had a reputation for painting things not found in the Gospels and monks faithful to the Pope were always trying to find some clue to hold against him. There had been accusations that he found inspiration from Apocalipsis Nova, a book written by his friend, Amadeo of Portugal, in which it is suggested that the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist were the true protagonists of the New Testament, and not Christ.
Father Prior Vicenzo Bandello of the Santa Maria delle Grazie too has his doubts on The Last Supper. In the painting none of the Apostles, nor Christ has a halo. It was called The Last Supper, but the table did not have bread or wine. There is no cup either. The second person from the right, who is supposed to be Judas Thaddeus is in the form of Leonardo himself and he is turning his back to Christ. In the painting it also depicted as if it is Saint Peter who will betray Christ.
The Prior asks for Father Agostino’s help in finding hidden secrets in the painting and Agostino asks the Prior for help in solving the Soothsayer’s riddle. One day, Father Alessandro is found hanging, apparently murdered. While investigating this murder, Father Agostino meets Leonardo, who tells the Father that it was Alessandro who procured some rare books for him. One of those rare books was called The Secret Supper.
This rare book had Christ’s teaching such as the method for people to speak directly to God without clergy and Leonardo wanted to reveal it to the world. His idea was to hide the message in the thirteen protagonists of The Last Supper as a gibe against Rome. The teachings of Jesus to John and Mary Magdalene was aimed at showing how to find God within ourselves. According to Leonardo, Christ did not resurrect as a mortal body, but as light and it is depicted with one half of The Last Supper in light and the other in darkness. The novel ends predictably with the solving of Leonardo’s puzzle as well as the Soothsayer’s one.
Unlike The Da Vinci Code, which had a cliff hanger at the end of each chapter, this one is slower and and has a not so tight plot. The book starts with a death, and then there are the murders of Father Alessandro and Giulio. There is no focus in finding the murderers. In fact when the person is found, it is not even a startling revelation. When Father Agostino leaves for Milan, he has a puzzle on hand, which is the clue in finding the Soothsayer. After a few chapters, the puzzle also fades away from focus. It gets solved by Leonardo da Vinci, and is mentioned by his disciples to Agostino. Since it was the Soothsayer who was responsible for setting the story in motion, we would think he would have an important role in the book. Nope. He too falls in the background.
The focus of the book is entirely on The Last Supper and on the motivation behind each and every hidden symbol in it, including the knot at one end of the table. The people who modeled for the Apostles were people like Father Alessandro, after whom Judas was modeled and some others considered heretics. The man to whom Leonardo da Vinci (or Judas Thaddeus) is talking to in the painting is considered to be Plato. As the novel progresses more and more secret messages are revealed.
One of the best ways to learn history is to break into a period through some historical novels and then use that for reading serious texts. Similar to how The Da Vinci Code educated us on the role of Mary Magdalene in the history of Christianity, this book introduces us to Cathars, a religious movement with Gnostic elements that was branded by the Roman Catholic Church as heretics. Cathars believed in reincarnation, followed the practice of Mary Magdalene and initiated people into the ‘secret of light’ and understood that they needed no help from the clergy to address God.
Though not as nail biting and focussed as The Da Vinci Code, this book reveals a lot about the personality of Leonardo da Vinci, the secrets of The Last Supper and gives a good feel for the times he lived.