Secret Supper

Several cards printed with curious effigies tumbled onto the floor. The first corresponded to a woman wearing the Franciscan habit, a triple crown on her head, a cross like that of Saint John the Baptist in her right hand and a closed book in her left. . . . “You’ll never open the priestess’ book,” the pilgrim said.

Javier Sierra’s novel The Secret Supper tells the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of “The Last Supper” (or more properly the “Cenacolo“—a circle of companions who meet together). The novel takes us through an experience like that advised by Leonardo himself:

Every time you admire a painting, remember that you are entering the most sublime of all arts. Never remain on the surface: enter the scene, move among its elements, uncover its unknown details, prowl its recesses—and in that way you’ll grasp its true meaning. But let me warn you: you need courage for the task.

The story answers such questions as: Who is the real traitor depicted in “The Last Supper”? Who is the figure on the furtherest right? Why is the tablecloth knotted? What do the groupings of disciples signify? What does the tarot have to do with it all? The answers, according to Sierra, owe much to Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend and the teachings of Amadeo of Portugal in his Apocalipsis Nova in which the Virgin is not Mother of Christ, but a symbol of Wisdom. And, we soon discover, the tarot had been designed by the old Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, with the assistance of the condottiere Francesco Sforza in 1441. Last Supper

But it is now 1497 and, in the days immediately following the untimely death of the Duke’s 22-year-old wife, Beatrice d’Este, Dominican inquisitor Agostino Leyre arrives at the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan in search of the identity and truth concerning an informer. “The Soothsayer” has warned the Roman inquisitors that Milan is being turned into a heretical lair—a Cosimo di Medici-style “New Athens”—by the sorcerer Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. Proof may lie in the painting currently being completed by Leonardo in the oratory (commissioned by Ludovico), for Cosimo had taught Leonardo daVinci the secrets of the ancients:

A work created in accordance with certain subtle codes would come to reflect the cosmic forces and might thus be used to protect or to destroy its owner, and . . .  to make it emanate beneficial influences.

Agostino is further commissioned by the prior of the church to find an explanation for the “The Last Supper,” and to identify a book, if it exists, on which it is said to be based, and then determine whether that book is a heretical text. Amidst a series of mysterious deaths the Dominican Agostino struggles to understand the significance of what is happening around him. The novel is far more about this than about the rather obvious solution to the crimes—for the intriguing messages Leonardo has hidden in his painting transform all who recognize them.

The tarot plays a significant although peripheral role and only the Papess is mentioned specifically:Visconti - Papess

(MILD SPOILER ALERT) ‘You should know that the man who painted these cards was Bonifacio Bembo of Cremona. . . . Seeing that the fate of our brothers was in danger, he decided to conceal in this pack of cards for the Visconti family some of the basic symbols of our faith. Like the belief that we are the mystical offspring of Jesus. What better symbol of this belief than to paint a pregnant Pope, holding in her hand the Cross of the Baptist, making clear to all who can read it that the New Church is about to be born? ‘That card,’ Leonardo said in a reverential voice, ‘is the precise prophecy of what is to come.’

A cross between Humberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Javier Sierra’s novel credibly depicts late 15th century Milan. The book is notable for its intelligent use of historical figures, events and writings. While it is doubtful that Sierra’s premise is true (this is fiction, after all), he makes good sense of many little known facts. For instance, few realize that at the end of the 13th century a community of around 1500 Cathars lived peacefully in the village of Concorezzo on the outskirts of Milan.

The plot is too obvious for mystery fans (no red herrings), too slow for the adventure genre, and the storyline is a bit disjointed. Still, this otherwise carefully crafted tale, a best-seller in the rest of the world, moves comfortably along. The symbolism revealed in the painting will stick with you and is far more plausible than that concocted by Dan Brown and his sources. This is an intelligent ‘what-if’ fiction for those who want to spend several entertaining hours in a well-portrayed world five hundred years in the past. It should intrigue most tarotists, although a few hard-core historians are sure to become infuriated (oh, joy!).

I just discovered this great site that shows “The Last Supper” in amazingly clear detail and offers surround views of the exterior and interior of the building with an optional audio lecture – fabulous!