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The Da Vinci Code | Study Guide

Dan Brown

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The Da Vinci Code | Context


The Holy Grail

For centuries Christians have sought the Holy Grail, believed to be the cup from which Jesus drank at The Last Supper. The Grail is believed to be sacred and to have the ability to confer great spiritual powers on anyone who possesses it.

The Grail was introduced as the object of a divine quest by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes in his 12th-century poem Perceval. It was based on the early medieval legends about England's King Arthur and his knights, one of whom, Perceval, searched for a golden grail. The poem Joseph d'Arimathe, written by Robert de Boron c. 1200, embellished the Grail myth by depicting its link to the Gospel character Joseph of Arimathea, who offered his own tomb as a resting place for the crucified Jesus. In the poem Joseph uses the Grail to catch Jesus's blood as he hangs from the cross. Another French work, the "Queste del Saint Graal" (Quest of the Holy Grail), c. 1220, attributed the quest for the Grail to Sir Arthur's knight Sir Galahad.

The Grail continues to inspire writers, including conspiracy theorists. A 2007 book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln argued that the Holy Grail was not a cup but proof that Jesus married his disciple Mary Magdalene and sired children. The Da Vinci Code presents the same theory.

The Codices

Another potential influence on Brown's work likely arose from the 1945 discovery and deciphering of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, or codices. These manuscripts are extremely ancient religious texts (some dating back 4,300 years) that contain what many consider to be "lost Gospels" about Jesus and his teachings. The papyrus manuscripts contain mystical and gnostic (secret spiritual knowledge) teachings about Jesus and a person's relationship to God.

The Nag Hammadi manuscripts were found in a massive clay jar buried in the desert sands of Upper Egypt. The texts had been buried—probably by monks who wanted to preserve them from destruction. Once the 13 ancient papyrus books were analyzed and translated, their subject matter became a source of extreme unease for modern Christian churches. Some of the papyrus manuscripts contain gospels that speak of Jesus as a man who taught that a person could find God on his or her own, without the intercession of any church. The Apocryphon of John, for example, promises to reveal "the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence." Other manuscripts describe a greater role for women and refer to the divine feminine, or the idea of honoring women's childbearing role as something sacred. In some of the manuscripts Mary Magdalene is said to be the most favored and beloved of Jesus's disciples, perhaps even his wife. The following is an extract from the Gospel of Philip:

The companion of [the Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] ... They said to him ''Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you as (I love) her?"

This passage and many like it caused modern Christian churches and devout Christians much discomfort because they negate many traditional teachings.

Brown most likely drew on these ancient texts, since a number of them are referenced in the novel. Brown explains that all or nearly all of the similar ancient manuscripts were destroyed by the founders of the Catholic Church after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

The First Council of Nicaea

The First Council of Nicaea was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine and met in Nicaea (now part of Turkey) in 325. It brought together Christian bishops to settle certain questions about Christian doctrine.

The bishops who assembled at Nicaea were aware of some of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts but rejected their teachings. The bishops voted on which gospels would be included in the official Bible and which ones would be declared heretical (at odds with the Christian faith), and therefore omitted from the Bible. Brown addresses the arbitrary nature of the "official" Bible and the rejection of texts written nearer the time of Christ's life; his writing questions orthodox, institutional Christianity and its belief system. Brown has said he welcomes the debate that has arisen since the publication of this novel.

The Knights Templar

The Knights Templar was a military religious order established in the late 11th century. In one of The Da Vinci Code's appropriations of historical figures for fictional purposes, the knights were formed to keep the book's central secret about the true nature of the Holy Grail.

The knights were primarily responsible for protecting Christians who fought in the Crusades. As the Crusades were generally unmitigated disasters for the Christian pilgrims and fighters, the Templars were (wrongly) singled out for this failure by their contemporaries.

Yet despite the debacles of the Crusades, for a time the Templars flourished. They became powerful and wealthy, largely through gifts from monarchs and the aristocracy intended to curry favor with them and the Church. The Templars owned vast properties, including castles and other grand buildings, throughout Western Europe. Their extensive network of membership and property allowed the Templars to control a significant stake in banking and in the transportation of goods.

Some Church leaders reviled the Templars and objected vehemently to the notion of a military wing within the Church. Others simply resented the Templars' wealth and influence. As military defeats in the Holy Land mounted, with the most bitter in Acre in 1291, many churchmen turned against the Templars, and their property began to be confiscated by those who had bestowed it. Several important members of the Knights Templar were accused of blasphemy.

The order was destroyed by King Philip IV of France in March 1312, though the reasons for his actions are unclear.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was one of the world's greatest painters and a brilliant Renaissance thinker. He lived in Florence and Milan, Italy, where he painted some of the most famous and influential paintings of all time. Among these are the world-famous portrait The Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19), the religious painting of the Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), and his magnificent wall painting, The Last Supper (1495–98). The Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile has intrigued art historians and the public for centuries. The Mona Lisa and the Virgin of the Rocks hang in the Louvre Museum in Paris, along with several other religious da Vinci paintings, including the Annunciation and John the Baptist. The Last Supper is a fresco in a church in Milan.

Da Vinci's religious paintings have been interpreted by some as containing hidden religious secrets. Dan Brown has exploited this interpretation in his use of the artist's paintings in the novel. However, the presence of secret religious information in the paintings is disputed.


A container called a cryptex figures prominently in the novel. In fact Dan Brown made up the word cryptex (from the Greek word kryptos for "hidden" or "secret" and the Latin word codex for a "book or other written material"). Brown's cryptex is a fictional creation that he uses to great effect to add mystery to his novel. At best the cryptex might be defined as a "portable vault" used to carry secret messages.

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