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Done with Da Vinci: Art History Professor George Gorse Has Had Enough of the hype, But Not the Artist

You won’t bump into Art History Professor George Gorse at the box office when The Da Vinci Code movie opens May 19. He only reluctantly read the book, and he has no plans to plunk down nine bucks to see the film. After three years of fielding questions from readers of the conspiracy-filled tome, he’s pretty much done with Da Vinci. “I’m waiting for it to go away,” says Gorse, an expert in Italian Renaissance art.

He may be in for a long wait. Some 46 million copies are in print, according to the Associated Press, and the movie starring Tom Hanks is expected to be a big hit. In case you’ve been cloistered for the last few years, Dan Brown’s novel revolves around a secret kept hidden for centuries: that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, they had a child and their blood line survived into modern Europe. According to the novel, Leonardo da Vinci was in on the secret and clues to the truth lie hidden in his masterpieces such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa.

The book is a fictional thriller that begins with a murder at the Louvre in Paris. But the story's prologue also asserts that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.’’ And that’s where the problems start, according to Gorse, who says many readers believe the book’s underlying theories are nonfiction.

”The play on the line between fiction and nonfiction is very insidious,” says Gorse. “It’s a bad example for all of us.”

Gorse finds the novel’s interpretations of Leonardo da Vinci’s art are off base at best. Take the case of Leonardo’s famous mural, The Last Supper and the androgynous appearance of Christ’s disciple, John, within that work of art. The Da Vinci Code makes the leap that the figure traditionally considered to be John is really Mary Magdalene, Christ’s secret wife. But Gorse points out that John was traditionally portrayed as androgynous, emotional and distraught in art of that time – not just in da Vinci’s work – perhaps to represent his traditional depiction as the disciple with the closest emotional ties to Christ.

Also in The Last Supper, the disciple Peter is clutching a knife, which The Code suggests is a sign he’s plotting to kill Mary Magdalene. Gorse says there’s a far more compelling – and obvious – explanation: that Leonardo was drawing upon the gospel account in which Peter cuts off a man’s ear in an attempt to prevent Christ from being seized by the authorities.

As for the tome’s wider premise, “there’s no evidence the Magdalene was ever married to Christ, there’s no evidence they had a daughter and there’s no evidence of a bloodline,” says Gorse. “This is all a 19th or 20th century invention.”

Gorse finds the novel’s popularity says more about our modern – or postmodern – times than it does about history. “People are feeling things are out of control,” with wars, global warning and social tensions, says Gorse. “Conspiracy theories “present instant solutions that people find intriguing and appealing.”

Gorse didn’t expect to become a Da Vinci Code debunker. After he learned of the novel’s premise, he was determined not to read it. But students kept asking him questions about it, and when Claremont Graduate University asked him to participate in a panel discussion about the book, he had no choice but to take in the tome. Gorse later participated in a second CGU panel discussion and in 2004 he appeared on a History Channel program, “Beyond the Da Vinci Code,” which has aired over and over due to the popularity of the topic. Most recently, Gorse held forth on the book to a packed room at Scripps College in January. But he doesn’t want to devote too much time to the Code.

”I’m supposed to feel grateful that this draws attention to my poor little field of art history,” says Gorse. “Just the opposite. People have always been interested in art and Leonardo. This just throws you off into dealing with misconception, shoddy thinking, mythmaking, one layer after another, big piles of it.”