It seems that in an increasingly faithless age, the Western world cannot get enough of looking for hidden messages in everything. The reprogramming of the History Channel for example, from carefully researched documentaries about actual history, to ridiculous shows about conspiracies involving extra-terrestrials, Bigfoot, or the freemasons – or all three – is but one example of how culturally ignorant and gnostic our society has become. Unfortunately, this wave of secular Gnosticism has also overflowed into our scholarly institutions.
Recently ArtNet ran an article about Leonardo da Vinci and the supposed hidden messages in his famous fresco of “The Last Supper” in Milan, linking to a video on the subject produced by the Smithsonian. Normally, when clicking on such an article, one must take a deep breath before proceeding, and prepare to be astounded by the sheer stupidity that one is about to read. In this case, although I was pleasantly surprised at first, by the end of the piece I was in full eye-roll mode.
The researcher featured in the article/video, Mario Taddei, is a Milanese inventor and Leonardo da Vinci expert. He gained some prominence during the Dan Brown era of about a decade ago, back when the laughably bad book “The Da Vinci Code” was a best-seller, and Tom Hanks had some overdue tax bill to pay which required him to play the lead in the atrocious film of the same name. Since then Taddei has been consulted by a number of media outlets in order for him to comment on, and often debunk, the theories put forward by Brown regarding Leonardo.
To give him credit, in the Smithsonian video Taddei points out that Dan Brown’s theories about the “Last Supper” are utter nonsense. He correctly notes that Leonardo was to some extent restricted in what he was painting by the Christian iconography that preceded his depiction of the Last Supper. The video also points out that hidden letters with obscure meanings could be spotted in virtually any painting ever painted, not just Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. Toward the end of the video however, things go off the rails.
It is never a good idea to make sweeping generalizations about subjects which you do not understand very well. Thus I am somewhat surprised that the Smithsonian could not simply have called someone over at the National Gallery, before making a rather unfortunate statement in this video. For near the end of the piece, the narrator claims that: “Before Leonardo da Vinci, all versions of the Last Supper showed Jesus and His Disciples with haloes.”
This statement is utterly false.
In Dierc Bouts’ magnificent “Last Supper”, which forms the center panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s in Louvain – a work so coveted by many over the centuries that it was stolen to order by the Nazis during World War II – neither Christ nor any of the Apostles are sporting haloes. The same is true of the “Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno (or more likely by his workshop) which is now in the National Gallery in London, where there is not a single halo to be seen. Even the minor Flemish artist Joos Van Wassenhove painted a halo-less Last Supper for the powerful Montefeltro family, the Dukes of Urbino. All of these works, as it happens, were painted decades before Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.
While it is true that conventionally, representations of the figures at the Last Supper usually had haloes, there were partial exceptions to this rule long before Leonardo. There are countless examples from Byzantine and Romanesque art produced between the 5th and 11th centuries in which the only figure shown with a halo at the Last Supper is Christ. Moreover, many artists before Leonardo never or hardly ever put haloes on their religious figures in any picture, including the great Jan Van Eyck. Thus, Leonardo’s idea was hardly original.
More curious still is the assertion by Taddei in the film as to why Leonardo chose to omit the haloes.“I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that these people are common people, and this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei comments in the video. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”
It should be noted that, in the early part of his career, Leonardo most certainly did put haloes on his figures. His “Annunciation” of circa 1472-1475 for example, features haloes on both the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and his “Benois Madonna” of 1478 places haloes on the Madonna and Child. It is true that Leonardo later abandoned the practice of painting haloes in all of his religious paintings, but probably not for the reason given by Taddei. After all, while not conclusive, the earliest-known copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, painted by his assistant Giampietrino about 20 years later, has haloes on the figures.
In both versions of Leonardo’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” – one of which is in The Louvre and the other in The National Gallery in London – an angel accompanies the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. John the Baptist. While none of the human figures in the Louvre version have haloes, the angel is surely “extra-terrestrial or supernatural”, yet it does not have a halo either. In the National Gallery version, all of the human figures have haloes, but again the angel does not. Even if the human haloes were added by a later hand, since neither of the angels bear haloes, it is hard to argue that Leonardo abandoned the halo because he was trying to humanize a figure that was, by definition, not a human being. Moreover, throughout art history, angels sometimes wear haloes, and sometimes they do not; this was the case long before Leonardo.
More importantly, putting aside the bizarre use of the term “extra-terrestrial” in the context of analyzing a work of Christian sacred art, Taddei betrays his lack of understanding in saying that there is nothing “supernatural” going on in this scene. For Catholics, and certainly for the Dominican Friars who commissioned Leonardo’s painting, the Last Supper marks the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Leonardo would have known and understood this, as would the men who paid him to paint this picture. He was not simply portraying a meal, like he might a Kiwanis Club banquet in Des Moines, but rather a supernatural event.
Signor Taddei may be many things, but he is neither an art historian nor a theologian. He should be given credit for debunking the nonsense that Dan Brown attempted to pass off as fact, and the Smithsonian should be credited as well for putting together this video allowing him to do so in a concise way. Yet one does not remedy someone else’s chicanery by making easily disproved assertions, nor by presenting half-baked theories based on a poor understanding of the subject matter.