Dan Brown revisited

L’Express, May 18, 2006

The Priory of Sion is at the heart of the Da Vinci enigma. You set out to track down this secret society, whose existence no one had ever tried to verify before. What did you find out ?

At the risk of disappointing some readers, there was no such priory founded by Godefroi de Bouillon in 1099. The only recorded Priory of Sion is the one created on 25 June 1956 by a certain Pierre Plantard, a draftsman in a stove factory in Annemasse! It was a non-profit organization registered at the Haute-Savoie sous-préfecture. The Mount Sion after which the organization was named refers to the mountain in Haute-Savoie, not the one in Jerusalem. This Pierre Plantard – like Sophie Plantard de Saint Clair, the heroine of the Da Vinci Code – claimed descent from the Merovingian kings. Pierre Plantard was the son of a valet, a supporter of Pétain and a compulsive fabricator. He had at first wanted to become a priest, but ultimately turned to the esoteric. While founding the Priory in the late 1950s, he discovered the Rennes-le-Château story, which helped him to build on his personal legend.

An incredible story…

Totally! One of the main characters in the story was a priest named Béranger Saunière. Dan Brown alludes to him by giving the name Jacques Saunière to the Louvre curator murdered at the beginning of his novel. In 1885 the priest wound up in the little parish of Rennes-le-Château, in the Aude region. The village church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, was in ruins. He restored it, and for some unknown reason began digging in the cemetery. Then he built a tower and a retirement home for old priests. ‘‘Where’s the money coming from?’’ the locals wondered. The rumours got bigger. The priest was purported to have found parchments inside a pillar in the church, which led to his interest in the cemetery. Who’s to say? What’s sure is that Saunière began conducting mass illicitly and wrote to hundreds of Catholic charities throughout Europe asking for money to say masses for the dead. Although he was only meant to say one mass daily, he received enough money to pay for over 30 masses per day! He was eventually condemned by his bishop for this fraudulent activity.

But in spite of that, the legend of Saunière’s treasure endured !

Yes, because his housekeeper kept it alive. Thirty years after Saunière died, she sold the property to a businessman named Noël Corbu, who decided to open a restaurant on the site while continuing to excavate. Fifteen years later the restaurant-owner was ruined and didn’t have an ounce of treasure to show for it; so he figured he might as well use the legend to attract customers. A journalist from La Dépêche du Midi went to see him and wrote an article entitled ‘‘Saunière, the millionaire priest.’’ And that’s how the legend got started.

How did Pierre Plantard find out about it ?

Plantard read the article. So did Gérard de Sède, a Trotskyist poet-writer, and the Marquis de Cherisey, a whimsical aristocrat keen on royalist genealogy. These three characters met and decided to concoct the myth of Rennes-le-Château sometime in the mid-1960s. To give some historical legitimacy to their story, they filed documents at the Bibliothèque nationale supposedly proving the existence of the Priory of Sion and Pierre Plantard’s claim to be the last descendant of the Merovingian dynasty. In the early 1980s British writers Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh elaborated on the mystery in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. They claimed that the Priory contained a secret: Jesus and Marie Madeleine had offspring – from whom the Merovingian kings descended. And Saunière had discovered documents in his church dating from the time of the Templars to prove it! I found the ‘‘secret files,’’ which Dan Brown calls ‘‘parchments’’ in the preface to his book, at the Bibliothèque nationale. They are nothing more than ordinary typewritten pages! In fact, in 1979 the Marquis de Cherisey admitted that he had forged them using other documents.

Why would they invent this whole story in the first place ?

Pierre Plantard really thought he was the last descendant of the Merovingian kings, the “lost king” whom the Marquis de Cherisey had been dreaming about for years! As for Gérard de Sède, he just felt like playing a hoax.

So the list of famous Priory leaders that Dan Brown mentions in his preface – Victor Hugo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci – is totally fanciful.

Yes, but they were not chosen by accident. They all flirted with the esoteric. Victor Hugo did table-turning, Isaac Newton practiced alchemy, and Leonardo da Vinci was interested in secret societies. But none of them was ever a member of the Priory – not surprisingly! In my view, Rennes-le-Château is the greatest esoteric myth of our times.

The novelist added another spicy ingredient  : Opus Dei. And he laid it on pretty thick with his murderous monks wearing cilices, plotting prelates and scandals !

Naturally there is a large dose of fiction here. Opus Dei – an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group founded in 1928 by José Maria Escriva de Balaguer, counting 80 000 laymen – has never been condemned for any criminal acts. But it is true that it cultivates secrecy, has a solid footing in the Vatican – and has probably contributed handsomely to its coffers. It is a rather macho organization, with all male leaders; and some of its members practice corporal mortification.

Was Leonardo da Vinci the heretical painter/ genius of esoterica portrayed in this book ?

Leonardo da Vinci took a lot of liberties with the Church and slipped many pagan symbols into his paintings. But most Renaissance painters were passionately interested in Antiquity and often used these symbols, which were well known to the public. Scholars and artists at that time were fascinated by Hermetism, Neo-Platonic texts and the Christian Kabbalah. The key issue is whether or not Leonardo painted Mary Magdalene in place of St. John in his Last Supper. The apostle portrayed in the paintings indeed has a rather effeminate look, although he does not have breasts, contrary to what Dan Brown maintains. But there’s nothing strange there either. St. John is portrayed with almost adolescent features – long-haired and smooth-cheeked – in the vast majority of Renaissance paintings. Tradition holds that he was 17 when he met Jesus. Furthermore, Leonardo da Vinci was a homosexual and probably used his boyfriend as the model. So, to say that the apostle John in the Last Supper is none other than Mary Magdalene seems totally far-fetched to me.

Getting back to Mary Magdalene, what exactly do we know about her ?

The Gospel speaks of several distinct individuals: Mary of Magdala, the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared on the day of his Resurrection; Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha; and, lastly, an anonymous converted sinner who poured scented oil on the Galilean prophet’s feet. The sinner was gradually transformed into a prostitute in the Christian imagination; then the three figures eventually blended into one.

Could one of these three Marys have been Christ’s companion ?

Dan Brown bases his idea on the apocryphal Gospel of Phillip, written in the mid-2nd century. The Gospel of Phillip indeed existed, but was part of a rather particular school of thought, the Gnostic movement, which was spreading all over the Mediterranean region at the time, particularly in Alexandria. The Gnostics felt that salvation depended on knowledge, rather than on faith, which is why they were considered heretics by the Church Fathers. These ‘‘iconoclastic’’ believers, for whom the soul was good and the body fundamentally bad, raised up the feminine principle/put greater value on the feminine. In their eyes, the complementarity between men and women was of the same nature as that uniting human beings with God. What does the Gospel of Phillip say? Mary Magdalene was favorite disciple of Jesus, who ‘‘kissed her on the mouth.’’ If you read that passage on a trivial level, you would infer that they are lovers. But if you read it from the Gnostic perspective, you realize that kisses symbolize the spirit and knowledge. The master kisses his disciple in order to transmit his spirit, or soul.

So the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have had children – the secret of the Holy Grail – is totally absurd ?

I’m merely saying that what Dan Brown maintains in support of this theory doesn’t hold up. However, there is no historical proof confirming that his idea is false.

Brown also refers to the precious Qumran manuscripts (Dead Sea Scrolls), which he claims contain part of the secret. Why did it take so long for them to be translated – half a century – after their discovery ?

Quite simply, the 850 scrolls – including 200 biblical texts – unearthed beginning in 1946 near the Dead Sea, were in very bad condition. The Jerusalem Bible School, given the task of translating them, took its time getting down to the job. Today, all the documents have been deciphered and published by Oxford University Press, and the controversy has died down. But Dan Brown misrepresents history by presenting the Dead Sea Scrolls as the ‘‘first Christian texts.’’ In fact, they are Jewish texts and none of them says anything about Jesus. Not to mention Mary Magdalene.

Could one say, as Dan Brown does, that the Catholic Church deliberately played down the role of women in the early Christian era ?

This is one point on which the author of The Da Vinci Code is quite accurate. The role of women in the Gospels is far more important than what the early Church was willing to concede after the death of Jesus. The Gospels describe Christ surrounded by female disciples. And Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus near the empty tomb. The young woman threw herself at his feet, saying: ‘‘Rabouni,’’ a Hebrew word that means ‘‘beloved Master.’’ This affectionate nickname proves the extremely close relationship between them. Women were no longer in the picture starting with the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul. It was a purely sociological process in my view, a macho Mediterranean impulse experienced by the Jews – and by Muslims later on. It was logical for women not to be highlighted in religious texts in patriarchal societies where they ran neither the churches nor the synagogues. Later on, the Church authorized the cult of the Virgin Mary and of Mary Magdalene when it realized that popular devotion required feminine figures. But the mother of Jesus became an asexual figure, a symbol of absolute purity, while Mary Magdalene was associated with the sacred prostitute – two dehumanized archetypes.

That’s far from the sacred feminine that Dan Brown reintroduces …

Absolutely! Don’t forget that during a long period predating civilization, the divinities were all feminine. Then man became sedentary and became aware of his crucial function in the fertilisation process. As the patriarchal system gradually took over, the divinities became male in Greece, in the Roman Empire, as well as for the Jews and Christians. It is dishonest of Dan Brown to hold Christianity entirely responsible for repressing the sacred feminine.

Brown goes even further in asserting that Christianity owes its historical success to a vulgar political manoeuvre devised by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE.

Constantine indeed converted to Christianity on his deathbed, and had already turned the Christian faith into the main religion in the Roman Empire. But it was Theodosius who made it the official religion in 380 CE. In fact, Constantine had convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE not in order to sift through the Scriptures and burn the Apocryphal Gospels, but rather in response to the crisis of Arianism. A great theological debate was dividing the Church at that time: was Jesus a man, was he divine, or was he a God-man? In the Gospels, the Nazarene prophet defines himself as both the Son of God and as the Son of Man. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, claimed that the Son, the second figure in the Trinity, was not the equal of God the Father. A number of bishops rose up against Arius, and the quarrel escalated. Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea due to political concerns – to avoid divisiveness and to unify his empire on Christian foundations – and to force the prelates to come to an agreement. So it was not a political conspiracy, but rather a lively theological debate.

In that case, Dan Brown was right in saying that the doctrine of the Trinity was indeed the result of a vote.

It’s true that it took four centuries to establish the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ. The Council of Nicaea decreed Christ to be consubstantial with the Father, and condemned Arianism as heresy. But Dan Brown is mistaken in claiming that Constantine sought to favor the anti-Arius side by ordering the destruction of Apocryphal Gospels corroborating Arius’s thesis. It was only at the Council of Carthage in 397 that the Church ruled out – not burned – these Apocryphal Gospels, retaining the current four Gospels which, moreover, are the oldest Christian texts along with Paul’s letters.

How do you explain the triumphant success of The Da Vinci Code worldwide ?

Dan Brown and his wife had an excellent commercial idea in enhancing the idea of the secret with that of a conspiracy theory – about Church lies – and then throwing in the bit about the sacred feminine featuring Leonardo da Vinci. But I also see The Da Vinci Code as a true societal phenomenon. It highlights strong current trends: the public’s passion for Jesus, the institutional crisis – including academic institutions, since Dan Brown’s fans believe the official story is also suspect – and the increasingly apparent need to reconnect with the feminine. In fact, the book’s early success came from American feminist circles. The huge response to The Da Vinci Code, especially from de-Christianized Christians, is due to its rehabilitation of women and sex in Christianity. Why was the Church so eager to dispense with the feminine side? Why has it been so tense about sexuality? Dan Brown clearly provides some misguided explanations, but he does ask the right questions