Is it really only 10 years since the book named after a genius rose to the top of the bestseller lists—a name linked forever to that true genius, Leonardo De Vinci? The link with the painter, and what his art purportedly represented, was in theological terms to become, for some at least, akin to Darwin’s “missing link,” and as it turned out just as bogus. Nevertheless, after dominating the bestseller lists for two years, an article appeared in the New York Times analyzing the book’s phenomenal appeal that was just then beginning to wane. The book’s author was the fantasy novelist, Dan Brown, with the novel in question being The De Vinci Code (DVC). It was about a cryptic code, but for some the greatest puzzle at its center was solely the mystery of how it ever became so popular.
First off, a vignette from those now distant days, and a true one at that. (When discussing DVC it is always best to make that distinction.) There was a train packed with passengers coming from somewhere bound for London. It had been a long journey, with books and magazines competing with the scenery for attention. In British trains it is common to have four seats facing each other and across the aisle something similar. Sitting opposite me were four fellow passengers all reading intently, reading oblivious to all else in fact, and, yes, all reading DVC. As the train pulled into its destination, one of the four raised her head from the printed page exclaiming to all present: “Why weren’t we told….” Presumably what she was asking was why her generation had been denied knowledge of secret codes scattered in famous paintings that now unlocked “the truth” and by so doing subverted all Western civilization and the whole of Christendom? Given the list of spurious “FACTS” at the start of the novel, I should have laughed out loud—or wept—at such a reaction. But sensing the earnestness of the exclamation what I felt instead was closer to panic, the type one feels when visiting an institution for the criminally insane with a full moon rising.
Today, it is easy to forget how widespread this “madness” had spread. On the airwaves serious discussion was to be had about the contents of what was barely a novel, labelled a “thriller,” seen as a pot-boiler, derided as an airport paperback, dismissed as a “beach read.” Were things really falling apart, was the center not holding? In short, were we losing the plot? And yet, on closer investigation, the “plot” all seemed remarkably familiar, and as I examined it further still, the “sketch” underneath began to reveal itself….
Rewind some twenty odd years and another craze. The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (HBHG) had been released to similar claims of “earth-shattering conclusions,” especially from the publisher’s PR team. Christianity was all a fraud. A Frenchman in Paris, named Plantard, had said so, and what is more he had some document that linked him to arcane French monarchs that proved it. This led, naturally, to an enigmatic treasure buried under a church at Rennes-le-Château, which of course led to St. Mary Magdalene, and she led … well you can guess the rest. All “true,” of course—it was in a book so it must be. Incredibly my adolescent contemporaries thought so with the book becoming that generation’s Chariots of the Gods (another much studied “primary source” at our Catholic school run by priests.) And, thereafter, whilst in the midst of Post-conciliar crisis, it was to become just another source of confusion for young Catholics, as even more of our number started to turn away from the Faith, whilst the already distant shrugged their shoulders and trudged off ever further without a backward glance. Meanwhile, I was left bewildered.
In my confusion I was given an insight, however, and one that still makes me wonder. The “wonder” is how I was able to see through the fiction so clearly. Paradoxically, the source of my clarity lay in the sources at the back of the book that had mysteriously found its way into the school and then into our young lives. HBHG mentioned that the material debunking the New Testament had come from “Gnostic Gospels.” What were they I wondered? Soon I was to discover that these were hardly “newly discovered,” but instead had been around for a very long time. Furthermore, it appeared that quite early on in the history of the Church it had come down to a clear choice between Gnosticism and Catholicism. And curiously it was now that same choice I faced—with one true belief system, and one false…. Subsequently, from a labyrinth skillfully constructed for a generation set on spiritual self-destruction, and with but a slender “thread” of faith only partially grasped, I started tentatively to find my way out…
Of course, looking at HBHG today one wonders how such bunkum ever got into the mainstream, but never underestimate the power of confusion and the forces that orchestrate it. And remember it was not a “belief” that was planted but a doubt, and doubts grow, particularly in young minds, only to later sprout their rotten fruit called apostasy. And for anyone out there who still has any lingering doubts about the claims of HBHG let me put your mind at rest. The regal pretender Plantard proved to be a convicted fraudster, and the “discovered” documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale about the seemingly mysterious Priory de Sion were not only altogether fake but had been planted there by Plantard and his compatriots—all attested to before his death. The “gold” under the Rennes-le-Château church was no such thing, instead the ‘riches’ resulted from a priest who took money for saying Masses for the dead only to turn what should have been a good and holy thing into a financial racket—not so much supernatural as all too natural.
Talking of “supernatural,” one example from the book shows the thin veneer of knowledge that dazzled immature minds. Much was made of the inscription over the Rennes-le-Château church’s door. The Latin inscription read as follows: Terribilis est locus iste. In the book, there was a picture of the statue of a ‘demon’ under the fount at the said door—all deemed conclusive evidence that some terrible secret was held there. By the early 1980s Latin was as rare in the Church as it was on television so there was little way of contextualizing this. Many years later, whilst leafing through a 1962 Missal, I came across the Introit for the feast of the mother of all churches, the Church of St. John Lateran, and it read as follows: Terribilis est locus iste, before going on to conclude: hic domi est, et porta coeli: et vocábitur aula Dei…. As it turned out the second part of this inscription was discovered on nearby columns by the door of the same church at Rennes-le-Château, something the authors of the HBHG had overlooked—conveniently or otherwise. Such an inscription was therefore no occult warning, but instead an ancient prayer of the Church. All of which seemed to prove one thing—it is only the counterfeit that evil propagates, in worship, in relationships, in families … for it has but lies.
In light of this knowledge, when the DVC mania was at its height, I had but one regret: I hadn’t written it. You see, I knew the back-story, had studied its source material, had “lived it”—well, sort of—and was in total agreement with how great a novel it would make, but with one major difference: I would have not written a thriller but instead a comedy. It would be a Wodehousian farce at that, and one of epic proportions. Forget Langdon the symbologist (a discipline I wager not more than five people had ever heard of prior to DVC), and think instead of Jeeves and Wooster on the trail of a painting that holds a “secret” that is so momentous that, if she ever found out, even Aunt Agatha would have had to put down her china cup. And instead of maligning any Catholic group we could have the duo tracked by a cabal of avant-garde blind mime artists from Paris who also know the “secret” but are sworn to silence—all too easy for them. The story would zip along with the trail leading all the way back to a key document, namely a 1980s public library book called: The Wholly Pseudo & The Wholly Braille. Covered in dust, and awaiting discovery, it lies in the basement of a disused non-denominational church owned by Freemasons and once painted by Poussin, or was it Hitler….
Believe me, it couldn’t have been any worse than what the world lapped up in DVC.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, let it not be said that Mr. Brown has not left us a legacy. It is one I have been reminded of recently by others and have since investigated for myself, and can hereby verify. It is this: for years now seemingly in every charity shop across the length and breath of the United Kingdom, shelves are groaning with a text that was once popular, a bestseller in fact, and one that is now being discarded at a rate of knots with a wry smile and the following comment: “Why weren’t we told … what utter rubbish….”
To all those involved in the charity sector, and reminiscent of what a young woman called Lisa did for a certain painter many centuries before, I ask you to put your hands together and let’s hear it for Mr. Dan Brown, author (FACT).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”