Experts Offer Background on Da Vinci Code "Secrets"


Ron Howard's movie adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" opens in theatres nationwide on Friday, May 19. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis faculty experts are available to comment on issues and themes referenced in the book, including Leonardo da Vinci's art; anagrams and cryptography; and Catholicism.

Thomas J. Davis, professor and chair of religious studies, School of Liberal Arts, IUPUI, teaches history of Christianity, reformation history and thought.

"Fact vs. fiction: Though "The Da Vinci Code" is labeled as a novel (thus, fiction), Brown argues that his work is reliably based in historical evidence. Most historians disagree, pointing out basic flaws in Brown's presentation of material in 'The Da Vinci Code.'

"Anti-Catholicism: Though Brown assures the public that his work is not meant to be anti-Catholic, it does seem to play into a long American tradition of anti-Catholicism, dating back especially to the notorious Maria Monk novels of the nineteenth century, in which the church was accused of the most horrible crimes based upon the testimony of a young nun who finally escaped the convent to tell her story. (In fact, the book was written by a male Presbyterian minister).

"Seeker spirituality in modern America: Though many Americans report attending church services on a regular basis, there is a 'seeker,' mentality among both the church goers and the non-church goers. There is a growing emphasis on 'spirituality' over against 'religion.' 'The Da Vinci Code,' with its alternative religious outlook, offers, through (Brown's) novel, a way of finding spiritual fulfillment in a religion that he portrays as more natural, more egalitarian, and much more in tune with the notion of 'goddess' religion and the elevation of the divine feminine. It is a point of view that many find inviting, and they are eager to pursue such an alternative spirituality."

Phillip Goff is director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and associate professor of religious studies and American studies in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. "The phenomenal success of the book 'The Da Vinci Code' and the likely success of the movie owes a great deal to some of the prevailing religious attitudes of Americans. For the past two decades millions of Americans have left their historic religious traditions in search of truth in upstart congregations and in alternative religious literature. The advent of the World Wide Web only hastened the practice of finding religious knowledge and alternative faiths outside traditional means. Various scandals in the Church also heightened the suspicion with which millions of Americans began to view institutional religion. The result is a culture of mistrust of institutional religion that is beginning to look back at the early days of the faith with suspicion as well. "The Da Vinci Code" has been said to shake the faith of some believers, but ultimately it is an exciting story that taps into an existing culture of mistrust of religious institutions, both past and present."

Jennifer Lee is assistant professor of art history at the Herron School of Art and Design on the IUPUI campus. Lee's areas of expertise include Medieval art and architecture, Italian Renaissance art, and art in medieval popular culture. "Leonardo da Vinci is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating artists from the Renaissance. Anyone who studies his paintings will find many things to wonder at. However, the points that 'The Da Vinci Code' focuses on aren't the real questions. 'The Da Vinci Code' is a work of fiction. It's a very entertaining book, but it shouldn't be taken as history.

"At the time Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper, there was a long established tradition of portraying John with his head resting on Christ's shoulder to indicate their close friendship. John was the younger man, and artists traditionally represented youth with feminizing attributes. Leonardo does do some unusual things with the placement of his figures in The Last Supper, but by Renaissance standards, he isn't doing anything unusual with the characters themselves. It only looks surprising if you approach it with modern eyes. To Renaissance eyes, the figure on Christ's right wouldn't look like a woman as the book suggests.

"The Vitruvian Man' is probably Leonardo's most famous drawing. It's called 'Vitruvian Man' because it's derived from a first-century Roman architectural treatise written by Vitruvius. Vitruvius is describing the proportions of the human body with the intention of applying them to architecture. By making the drawing, Leonardo was demonstrating his knowledge of the ancient text. Architecture was part of the skill set that an artist like Leonardo offered to his patron and employer, the Duke of Milan."

Scott Orr, associate director of the IU Center for Cybersecurity Research and adjunct faculty member in computer science, teaches courses in Internet security in the School of Science at IUPUI.

"For as long as there has been information that has needed to be kept secret, codes and ciphers have been around to protect such information. Cryptography has always been an arms race between those who encoded messages and others desperately trying to crack them. Those who read (see) 'The Da Vinci Code' and get caught up in its mystery, should remember that the novel's depiction of the world of coded messages is just the tip of the iceberg."

Xukai Zou is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Science at IUPUI.

"An anagram is a rearrangement of characters of a word or phase to formanother word or phrase, for example, 'large' is an anagram of 'lager,' as is 'regal.'Anagramming is used in cryptography for message confidentiality. In particular, to provide secrecy, the letters in a message are rearranged based on some permutation agreed upon between the message sender and receiver in advance. The first cryptographic device for such secret coding - called the Spartan Scytale coding - dates back to the fifth century."

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