The Secret Supper

30 Jun 2006 by intern11

The Secret Supper

Javier Sierra, Simon & Schuster, US$20.65

The inevitable comparisons to the Da Vinci Code is apparent even from the cover of the book which depicts Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper.

But unlike Dan Brown’s novel, The Secret Supper is set at the time the painting was being created, highlighting the fact The Last Supper has been a controversial work of art even before it was revealed.

The year is 1497. In Rome, highly placed Papal officials are receiving ominous communications from a mystery man – the “Soothsayer”, who predicts dire consequences if the work of da Vinci’s The Last Supper continues.

In a period where the authority of the church was being questioned and heretical offshoots of alternative Christian beliefs were again springing up, the Soothsayer cannot be ignored.

Leonardo da Vinci and his followers have holed themselves up in the refectory of Milan’s Santa Maria della Grazia Church, especially to portray Christ at his last meal with his disciples.

The painting has been commissioned by the powerful Duke of Milan and da Vinci’s every wish is adhered, right down to his obsessive need for privacy and the request to depict several of the monks as the disciples, even Judas.

But da Vinci has a problem. Several of his previous paintings, including the Madonna of the Rocks, have come under harsh criticism by the Church for depicting a scene not in the Gospels and for concealing hidden messages damaging to traditional Catholic teachings. So when rumours spread that once again he is at work on a painting which will threaten the Catholic faith, the Church is seriously perturbed.

Into this world enters Father Agostino Leyre, the head of intelligence for the Dominican Order. Sent on a mission to find the Soothsayer and investigate his claims that the Duke was looking to turn his duchy into a new Athens, which is modeled after the teachings of Plato and that, in doing so, he would cast aside the Bible and the Church’s tenants. A key to this plan was to be found in The Last Supper.

The Secret Supper makes a lot of use of the secret symbols embedded in works of art – a language, which even the layman spoke fluently at the time, and has since been lost to us. It is in describing the endless debates over the hidden meaning in The Last Supper, that the story picks up pace and interest.

Imagining knots of people standing by the wall gazing as Christ and his disciples met for the last time, trying in vain to read through the paint and master brushstrokes to the message beneath, is to realise what a phenomenon The Last Supper was at the time. Though for a man obsessed with privacy, it seemed that every man and his dog (not to mention lover) was able to gain entry to the refectory to gaze on da Vinci’s art.

In reading The Secret Supper, a knowledge of the complex politics of various duchies and the Vatican states to dominate Italy at the time and the struggle by the Church to keep devotees on the right path is invaluable. Knowing who the Sforza family is, the d'Este sisters and Leonardo da Vinci and his work would also help, not to mention a working knowledge of Italian.

Sierra’s inability to explain all of the above adequately is a major weakness and a turn off for readers – unless they read with the novel in one hand and the Google website in the other.

One wonders if there was never a Da Vinci Code, would The Secret Supper have had more of a following. Unfortunately, it looks and reads like a poor imitation though its ability to delve deep in to the art of symbol reading saves it from oblivion.

Timothy Wong

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