Secret of Leonardo Da Vinci
Cryptex: not invented by Leonardo. This version was created
by Justin Nevins as a working piece of art. For more information
on his creations visit: www.cryptex.com.
Photo courtesy of Justin Nevins.
A recent spate of books and articles have suggested
that Leonardo Da Vinci was the leader
of a clandestine society and that he hid secret codes and messages
in his art work. Is this true? In addition to his role in history
as a famous painter, scientist and inventor, was he also the keeper
of some vast secret to be passed down through the ages?
Leonardo was certainly no stranger to the use codes
and encryption. His notes are all
written backwards with "mirror" writing. It is unclear exactly
why Leonardo did this. It has been suggested that he may have
felt that some of his military inventions would be too destructive
and powerful if they fell into the wrong hands, therefore he protected
his notes by using this reversed writing method. Other scholars
point out that this type of encryption was is fairly simple to
break. One needs only to hold to hold the paper up to a mirror
to read it. If Leonardo was using it for security, he probably
was only concerned about hiding the contents from a casual observer.
Other researchers have suggested that he used this
reversed writing because he found it easier. Leonardo was left-handed
and this would have made writing backwards less difficult for
him than for a right-handed person.
Recently Leonardo has been credited by many people
with inventing a device dubbed a cryptex. A cryptex is a tube
constructed with a series of rings with letters of the alphabet
engraved on them. When the rings are turned so that certain letters
line up to the cryptex's password, one of the end caps can be
removed and the contents (usually a piece of papyrus wrapped around
a glass bottle containing vinegar) can be removed. Should someone
try and get at the message by smashing the device, the glass bottle
will break and the vinegar will dissolve the papyrus before the
message on it can be read.
As ingenious as this device is, and as much as it
sounds like something Leonardo might have invented, the cryptex
is a fictional device created by Dan Brown and credited to Leonardo
in his popular book, The Da Vinci Code. There is no evidence
that Leonardo actually conceived or built such a device.
of the Mona Lisa
the Mona Lisa really a self-portrait? Comparing a Leonardo
self-portait with the Mona Lisa. Do they match up?
One popular idea is that Leonardo painted secret
symbols or messages into his artworks. People have analysed his
most famous painting, The Mona Lisa, and have found all kinds
of hidden meanings and techniques in it. It is certain that Leonardo
used some of his best artist's tricks to create the painting.
Many people find the portrait's smile particularly haunting. They
say it seems to change, even though the paint on the surface of
the painting obviously does not.
Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University
makes the argument that Leonardo painted the edges of the portrait's
smile so they would appear slightly out of focus. Because of this
the edges of the smile are more easily seen by a person's peripheral
vision rather than by looking directly at them. This may explain
why some people report that the portrait seems to be smiling more
when they are not directly looking at her.
Another theory proposed by Christopher Tyler and
Leonid Kontsevich of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute
in San Francisco says that the smile seems to change because of
variable levels of random noise in human visual system. If you
close your eyes in a dark room you will notice that everything
is not perfectly black. The cells in your eyes generate a low
level of "background noise" (which you see as tiny light and dark
dots). Your brain usually filters these out, but Tyler and Kontsevich
suggest that when viewing the Mona Lisa, these little dots can
change the shape of the smile. As evidence for their theory they
imposed several random sets of dots over a picture of the Mona
Lisa and showed them to people. Some of the sets made the portrait
look very happy, others seemed to sadden it. Tyler and Kontsevich
argue that the noise which is inherent in the human visual system
has the same effect. As someone views the painting, the noise
of their own visual system adds to the image and changes it, making
the smile seem to change.
So what is the Mona Lisa smiling about in the first
place? Through the years people have speculated that perhaps she
was pregnant. Others have found the smile to be sad and have suggested
she was unhappy in her marriage.
copy of the Mona Lisa made more happy and less happy by
the introduction of noise.
Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Laboratories has come
up with what seems an unlikely, but intriguing idea. She thinks
that the subject is smiling because the artist has put a joke
over on the viewers. She contends the painting is not of a pretty
young woman, but is actually a self-portrait of the artist himself.
Schwartz noticed that when she used a computer to line up the
features of the Mona Lisa with a portrait that Leonardo had done
of himself, they matched up perfectly. Other experts note, however,
that this may simply be the result of the two pictures being painted
by the same artist using the same techniques.
Dan Brown in his popular thriller The Da Vinci
Code suggests that Leonardo's The Last Supper has a number
of hidden meanings and symbols. In the fictional story there is
conspiracy by the early church to suppress the importance of Mary
Magdalene, one of Jesus' followers (the story suggests - to the
distress of many believers - that she was his wife). Supposedly
Leonardo was the head of a secret order of men who knew the truth
about Magdalene and attempted to preserve it. One of the ways
Leonardo did this was to leave clues in his famous work in The
The painting depicts the last Passover dinner Jesus
shared with his disciples before his death. Leonardo attempts
to capture the moment when Jesus announces he will be betrayed
and that one of the men at the table will be his betrayer. The
most significant clue left by Leonardo, according to Brown, is
that the disciple usually identified as John in the picture is
actually Mary Magdalene. Indeed, a quick look at the painting
seems to confirm this. The person to Jesus' right has long hair
and smooth skin with what might be regarded as feminine features
compared to the older, rougher-looking apostles around them. Brown
also points out, through the characters in his story, that Jesus
and the figure to his right together form the outline of the letter
"M." Does it stand for Mary or perhaps Matrimony? Are these clues
left by Leonardo about his secret knowledge?
Despite our first impression that the figure in
the picture is feminine, the question is whether the figure would
have looked feminine to a viewer of the era in which Leonardo
painted it. Probably it would have not. John was considered to
be the youngest of the disciples and as such he was often portrayed
as being a beardless youth with soft features and long hair. We
translate this today as being female, but back in Florence in
the fifteen century, which was a different culture with different
expectations of what it is to be feminine and masculine, that
wouldn't necessarily have been the case. Leonardo was only one
of a number of artists, including Ghirlandio and Andrea del Castagno,
who pictured St. John in this manner. In his Treatise on Painting,
Leonardo explains that characters in a painting should be depicted
based on their types. These types might include a "wise man" or
an "old woman" each with their own characteristics: beard, wrinkles,
short or long hair. John as pictured in The Last Supper
is a "student" type: A protégé who has not yet matured. Artists
of this day, including Leonardo, would have portrayed this "student
type" as a very young man with soft features just as we see in
figure to the left of Jesus (to the right in this image).
Is it John or Mary?
As for the outline of the "M" in the picture, this
is a result of the way the artist composed the picture. Jesus,
at the time he announces his betrayal, sits alone in the center
of the painting, his body in the shape of a pyramid and the disciples
in groups on either side. Leonardo favored this pyramid design
and often used it in his works.
Supposedly Leonardo was the leader of a secret group
called the Priory of Sion. According to The Da Vinci Code,
it was the Priory's mission to keep the secret of Mary Magdalene
and her marriage to Jesus alive. While The Da Vinci Code
is fiction, it is based on theories from a controversial "non-fiction"
book entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail written by Michael
Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in the early 1980's.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail cites the evidence
for Leonardo's membership in the secret Priory of Sion
as a number of documents deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale
in Paris. While there is some evidence that an order of monks
with this name existed as far back as 1116 A.D., there is little
to suggest that the medieval group had anything to do with the
Priory of Sion of the 20th century.
The documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale supporting
the existence of the Priory actually are there, but they appear
to be part of a hoax conceived by a man named Pierre Plantard
in the 1950's. Plantard and a group of like-minded friends with
right wing and anti-Semitic leanings formed the Priory. By fabricating
and planting the documents, including fake genealogical tables,
Plantard apparently hoped to show that he was a descendant of
the Merovingians and an heir to the French throne. The document
purporting to show Leonardo, along with such luminaries as Botticellie
and Isaac Newton as grand masters of the group, was fake as well.
It is unclear whether Plantard also tried to perpetuate
the Mary Magdalene story as well. It is known that he claimed
the Priory did possess a treasure. Not a set of invaluable documents
as suggested in The Da Vinci Code, but a collection of
sacred objects inscribed on a copper scroll
found with the Dead Sea scrolls in the 1950's. Plantard told
interviewers that the Priory would return this treasure to Israel
when "the time was right." Experts are divided on wheather the
treasure mentioned in the copper scroll ever really existed Even
if it did, there is no evidence that any group has control of
The fact that Leonardo wasn't the grand master
of a clandestine society as pictured in The Da Vinci Code
shouldn't lesson our admiration for him, however. While the inclusion
of this historical personage in a work of modern fiction is intriguing,
we should not allow it to cloud our vision of what Leonardo really
did accomplish. His art works have been an inspiration to millions
down through the centuries and contain intricacies that experts
are still trying to unravel. In addition, his experiments and
inventions have shown him to be an advanced thinker whose explorations
went far beyond that of his contemporaries. The secret of Leonardo
Da Vinci is that he was a genius that few people in his own century
De-Coding Da Vinci by Amy Welborn,
Our Sunday Visitor Inc, 2004.
Da Vinci Code Decoded by Martin Lunn, The
Disinformation Company Ltd,, 2004.
Leonardo's Secret Code Revealed by Lynn
Picknett and Clive Prince, USN & WR Special Edition, 2005.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Doubleday,
Lee Krystek 2005. All Rights Reserved.