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Cracking the Code
You saw the movie; now learn more about its truths and untruths
from our own Leonardo authority.

Da Vinci guru Jonathan Pevsner finds value—and flaws—in the blockbuster novel and film.
He was a 17-year-old high school student spending a year in London when he walked into the National Gallery and saw Leonardo da Vinci’s preparatory sketches for Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. For six hours, he sat there spellbound, studying the large-scale drawings. From then on—through college at Haverford, graduate work here, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford—Jonathan Pevsner, now an associate professor of neurology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neuroscience at the School of Medicine, was hooked.

In his teens, Pevsner began collecting rare books on Leonardo. Then he started buying works that Leonardo would have read, like Aesop’s Fables and the poetry of Ovid and Horace. He perused original manuscripts by Leonardo, who wrote not only in the Old Italian, but also backwards, in mirror script. “You can read it easily with a mirror or just by getting used to it,” says Pevsner.

When The Da Vinci Code debuted in 2003, Pevsner saw an opportunity. Not to debunk the book, which is, after all, a work of fiction. But to teach others more about the Leonardo he so admires.

Of course, he doesn’t want the book to detract from Leonardo’s accomplishments, so he’s willing to explore its truths and untruths—starting with the title. “It simply couldn’t have been called The Michelangelo Code or The Newton Code,” says Pevsner. “Leonardo was the perfect choice for the title character. He was mysterious, the kind of person one might think would be involved in a secret society.”

But, Pevsner continues, Leonardo would have never been part of the Priory of Sion, the religious society described in The Da Vinci Code which held that, among other things, Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. “Leonardo was not particularly religious. He simply didn’t have an interest in that direction. His faith was more in what he could observe in nature.”

The name of Leonardo’s masterpiece “Mona Lisa” is not a blend of the names of Egyptian fertility gods Amon and Isis, as author Dan Brown posits. In fact, says Pevsner, “Leonardo never even called the painting ‘Mona Lisa.’ That was a name given after his time.”

Another fiction: Leonardo was a flagrant homosexual. Fact: “We don’t have any evidence to know this is true.” Fiction: Leonardo exhumed corpses for his anatomical research. Fact: “He never would have needed to because he had access to corpses through medical schools.”

Pevsner studies the molecular basis of childhood disorders like Down syndrome. His area of expertise is bioinformatics, the topic of a text he authored and one he’s incorporated into several courses he teaches in the schools of Medicine and Public Health. An enthusiastic teacher (he was voted “teacher of the year” by graduate students this spring and has won two other annual teaching awards), Pevsner also offers a course on Leonardo in Johns Hopkins’ Odyssey evening program. He has lectured on Leonardo in venues ranging from local church halls to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

A neuroscientist, Pevsner is particularly interested in Leonardo’s discoveries relating to the brain. Leonardo’s remarkably accurate depictions of the skull were based on his careful observations of nature. Once, he injected hot wax into the base of the brain of an ox, let it harden, and then dissected away the tissue to get a mold in the shape of the vessels.

How hard would it actually be to inject wax into a brain? Working with neurosurgeon Alessandro Olivi, using the same type of tools and beeswax that Leonardo would have used, Pevsner injected the substance into the brain of a cow and produced the exact same mold. “It was really easy,” says Pevsner. “But I had a world-famous Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon at my side as well as an atlas of the brain and Leonardo’s instructions.”


The drawing of a man in a circle is Leonardo’s interpretation of Roman architect Vitruvius’ concepts, says Pevsner, not his most anatomically accurate, as the book suggests.

In The Da Vinci Code, Brown suggests that the long-haired figure on Jesus’ right in “The Last Supper” is Mary Magdalene, not the disciple John. “I can say categorically that the person next to Jesus was a man, the disciple John, and not a woman, Mary Magdalene,” says Pevsner. “It was considered reasonable for a man to have long hair. Besides, if this were Jesus’ wife, it’s very likely that her hair would have been up in the convention of the 15th century.”

The figure leans away from Jesus, forming an inverted pyramid, a symbol, Brown suggests, of the chalice and of Mary Magdalene. “It’s an imaginative story on Dan Brown’s part,” Pevsner says, “but Leonardo is simply isolating Jesus from the disciples who are reacting emotionally to the news that one of them would betray him.”

Inaccuracies aside, Pevsner has a genuine appreciation for The Da Vinci Code. It has helped a new generation rediscover Leonardo. It’s presented an opportunity to set forth one’s own beliefs about the origins of Christianity and join the ongoing dialogue on religion and spirituality that’s blossomed in its wake. Finally, says Pevsner, “it’s shown us that we should be critical of our sources and very careful about whom we believe.”

—Anne Bennett Swingle

 

 

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