The cover of "The Da Vinci Code" book.

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How The Da Vinci Code Doesn't Work

Since its 2003 publication, "The Da Vinci Code" has caused quite a stir. Since its debut to glowing reviews, it has sold more than 40 million copies in at least 44 languag­es [ref]. In addition to being a bestseller, it's sparked a lot of controversy. It's a work of fiction, but it presents itself as based in fact, and many critics have raised questions about whether those facts are accurate.

It's no secret that the HowStuffWorks staff likes to take things apart and see what makes them tick. Some of us are also the kind of sticklers who point out science and technology mistakes in TV shows and movies, much to the chagrin of the people listening. But when we heard about the controversy surrounding "The Da Vinci Code," we couldn't resist picking it apart.

In this article, you'll learn what happened when we took a close, hard look at "The Da Vinci Code" and how it uses science, technology, art and history.

Trouble at the Louvre

"The Da Vinci Code" begins with a crime at the Louvre Museum in Paris. At the behest of someone known as "the Teacher," a man named Silas murders curator Jacques Saunière. After reviewing the evidence, French investigators summon Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon for questioning.

Captain Bezu Fache of the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire (DCPJ) is sure that Langdon is the murderer. Fache has one of his lieutenants plant a GPS dot in Landon's pocket. It's a "metallic, button-shaped disk, about the size of a watch battery." This dot, according to cryptographer Sophie Neveu, is accurate to two feet and lets the DCPJ track Langdon's location, no matter where he is. In other words:

  • It's tiny.
  • It's amazingly accurate.
  • It works indoors.

However, real global positioning system (GPS) devices:

  • Can be small, but they're usually bigger than a watch battery. The unit described in the book would also have to fit a power source and a second radio transmitter into its tiny shell in order to communicate with police computers.
  • Are accurate to somewhere between 13 and 328 feet (4 and 100 meters).
  • Don't work well indoors, under dense tree cover or in urban areas with tall buildings.

A GPS receiver uses the position of three or more satellites to determine a person's location -- not one, as implied in the novel.

One fact explains all of these points -- by definition, a GPS receiver uses radio waves to communicate with satellites that are 11,000 miles above the Earth's surface. The receiver has to have an unbroken line of sight to these satellites, something it doesn't have indoors. Even military GPS technology can't typically get a fix on a soldier who is in dense tree cover or otherwise concealed. Check out How GPS Receivers Work to learn more.

The troublesome GPS dot keeps causing problems as the story moves along. Sophie tells Langdon that if he throws the dot away, the DCPJ officers will see that it is no longer moving and know he's onto them. She comes up with an ingenious plan. She imbeds the receiver in a bar of soap, breaks a restroom window and throws the soap onto the roof of a passing truck.

That seems like a good plan, and it works. The officers rush to apprehend the truck, believing that Langdon is on the roof. This buys him and Sophie some time. Unfortunately:

  • The restrooms of the Louvre have liquid soap, just like most other public restrooms.
  • According to a "Da Vinci Code" tour guide, the restrooms in that part of the Louvre do not have windows [ref].

In spite of its inaccuracies, this move does buy Sophie and Langdon some time. But the mistakes in the Louvre don't stop there. Check out what else goes wrong in the museum in the next section.

 

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Dennis Hurley, creator of the satirical film "The Albino Code," which addresses the way that "The Da Vinci Code" presents people with albinism.

Image courtesy Dennis Hurley

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Museums, Medicine and Other Mistakes

Rather than escaping through their newfound window of opportunity, Sophie and Langdon follow another clue to the Salle des Etats. The Salle des Etats, also known as the Salle de la Joconde, is the Mona Lisa's home. Before too long, the DCPJ apprehends them there.

In another burst of quick thinking, Sophie removes Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks" (called "Madonna of the Rocks" in the novel) from the wall opposite the "Mona Lisa." She uses the painting as a shield and threatens to destroy it by pressing her knee through the canvas. Naturally, the apprehending officer allows her to escape in order to prevent the destruction of the priceless artwork.

A few critics have remarked that the scene in the Salle des Etats is impossible because Leonardo painted "Virgin of the Rocks" on wood, not canvas. However, a royal art restorer called Hacquin transferred the painting to canvas in 1806. The scene is impossible as written for other reasons:

  • "Virgin of the Rocks" hangs in the Grand Gallery, not the Salle des Etats. The painting directly across from the "Mona Lisa" is Caliari's "The Wedding Feast at Cana." This painting is an enormous 32 feet (9.9 meters) wide. To be fair, we have not found a source detailing which painting faced the "Mona Lisa" before the 2001 closure of the Salle des Etats. However, in several older photographs, reflections in the "Mona Lisa"'s protective glass indicate that it wasn't "Virgin of the Rocks."
  • Even if "Virgin of the Rocks" did hang opposite the "Mona Lisa," it's 6.5 feet (1.99 meters) tall, too tall for Sophie to see over as described. The painting's ornate wooden frame is also too heavy for an average person to lift unassisted.
  • Sophie's removal of the painting from the wall does not activate any sort of security system. This contradicts the beginning of the book, in which Saunière removes a painting from the wall to activate a security system that seals off an entire corridor. It also contradicts the Louvre's real security system, which includes proximity and movement detection [ref]. For the record, this security system also uses real security cameras, which staff monitor 24 hours a day [ref].

The farther the story moves away from the Louvre, the more it begins to focus on events in the distant past and artistic interpretation rather than verifiable details. But it does make several other concrete errors, including its depiction of people with albinism. One of "The Da Vinci Code"'s villains is a man named Silas, who is an albino. He has white skin and hair as well as pink eyes with red pupils. Silas is good with a gun and drives a car at night in pursuit of the heroes.

Albinism is a real medical condition in which a person's body cannot produce the proper amount of the pigment melanin. Most people with albinism have very pale skin and hair and light-colored eyes. Very few people with the condition have pink eyes, though. Most have light blue eyes.

Albinism prevents a person's retina and ocular nerves from forming properly. For this reason, doctors use eye examinations to diagnose people with the condition. Most people with albinism don't see well because their retinas don't function properly. Although few are blind, many do not see well enough to drive a car or, as seen in "The Da Vinci Code," to shoot people from a distance. In other words, it's extremely unlikely that Silas could perform the tasks described in the novel. You can learn more about albinism at the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation.

Other errors aren't as complex as the ones described above:

  • When traveling from the Paris Ritz to the Louvre, Langdon and a DCPJ agent pass the Opera House and cross Place Vendôme. However, the Paris Ritz is on Place Vendôme. In order to pass the Opera House, the officer would have to head in nearly the opposite direction of the Louvre.
  • Langdon says that Saunière, a devotee of the ancient "sacred feminine," was interested in Wiccan relics. However, Wicca is a modern religion, not an ancient one.
  • The pyramid entrance to the Louvre contains 793 panes of glass, not 666 [ref].
  • Tarot decks contain 78 cards, not 22, although a deck does have 22 major arcana cards. Check out How Tarot Cards Work to learn more.
  • The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered in 1947, not the 1950s.
  • The novel implies that the Louvre has one curator. It really has a staff of 60 curators in eight departments. The "Mona Lisa" has its own curator.
  • Harvard does not have a professor of "symbology," and symbology is not a real academic discipline [ref].
  • There are no metal detectors at Westminster Abbey, and people cannot make charcoal rubbings of the plaques there [ref].

Next, we'll take a look at the novel's treatment of art and history.

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Art and History

"The Da Vinci Code" makes a lot of claims about art and the Christian Bible. Of all the disputed statements in the book, these can be the hardest to prove or quantify. Although some people spend their entire lives studying and interpreting art or religious scriptures, both fields are by nature imprecise. It can be impossible to determine an artist's actual intent for a particular piece or the exact meaning behind a particular religious passage.

According to the novel, Leonardo placed hidden symbols and codes in his paintings. For example, the book makes a lot of assertions about the "Mona Lisa," including:

  • Leonardo carried the painting around with him and refused to part with it.
  • The painting is a "well-documented collage of double entendres and playful allusions."
  • Unevenness in the background makes the painting more majestic from the left than the right, which is a testament for Leonardo's love for the feminine.
  • The painting represents an androgynous person or a self-portrait of the artist.
  • Leonardo named the painting for Egyptian deities -- fertility god Amon and fertility goddess Isis.

Which of these points are true? Here's what we found:

  • Leonardo did keep the painting rather than give it to the person who had commissioned it.
  • Plenty of art scholars have proposed theories about the painting and who it represents. However, these are all theories -- Leonardo didn't leave behind a step-by-step analysis of his intentions behind the painting.
  • Some scholars have pointed out similarities between the "Mona Lisa" and Leonardo's self portrait. However, the widely accepted theory is that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. This is why the painting is known as "La Joconde" in France and "La Gioconda" in Italy.
  • Although you can blend "Amon" and "Isis" and get "Mona Lisa," there's a much simpler explanation. "Mona" is a title meaning "my lady" in Italian, and the woman who sat for the portrait was named Lisa.

"The Da Vinci Code" also proposes theories about Leonardo's painting of the "Last Supper." According to the book, it shows Mary Magdalene at the right hand of Jesus as well as a disembodied hand bearing a knife. Langdon's explanation for why people don't notice the painting's hidden meaning involves "scotoma" -- the brain blocking knowledge associated with powerful symbols. However, "scotoma" is a medical term that simply means "blind spot." A scotoma typically stems from neurological or ocular dysfunction -- not from exposure to a powerful symbol.

The figure to the right of Jesus does have a feminine appearance, but most scholars agree that it is the apostle John, who typically has a youthful, delicate appearance in artwork of the period. Careful examination of the painting also reveals that the "disembodied" hand really belongs to Peter, although he is holding the knife in a somewhat awkward position. Check out these annotated pictures to learn more.

The novel also makes numerous assertions about history and other works of art. Here's a run-down of some of the frequently contested points:

  • Alexander Pope did not deliver a eulogy at Isaac Newton's funeral, although Pope did write a poem about Newton.
  • The Gospel of Philip was probably written in Greek, not Aramaic, although the only surviving manuscript is written in Coptic.
  • Approximately 50,000 people -- men and women -- died during the years of witch hunts, not 5 million.
  • The Priory of Sion is a fictitious organization, founded and publicized by Pierre Plantard in 1956 [ref].
  • King Philip of France did arrest and torture members of the Knights Templar on a Friday the 13th in 1306. However, there are many other reasons behind some people's superstition regarding Friday the 13th. See How Friday the 13th Works for more detail.
  • Accounts about the history of Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks" differ. However, it seems that money, not displeasure about the symbolism of the painting, caused the dispute that led to two versions of the painting [ref].
  • Nothing in the Bible or any other existing historical document proves that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. At the same time, no existing document proves that he was not.

Finally, most of the theories in "The Da Vinci Code" about Jesus's relationship to Mary Magdalene, whether they had a child, the "real meaning" of the Holy Grail and the history of the Catholic church come from one source. That source is "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent and others. Also known as "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" in the United Kingdom, this book is marketed as a work of nonfiction. However, many critics have raised serious questions about its accuracy.

Check out the links in the next section for more information on the Louvre, "The Da Vinci Code" and other locations referenced in the book.

Lots More Information

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Sources

  • Carlin, Dan. "Paris Locales Clue In ‘Da Vinci’ Devotees." The Arizona Republic. September 26, 2004.
  • Corliss, Richard. "Can a Thriller Be Both Fair and Fun?" Time. April 24, 2006.
  • Lacy, Norris J. "The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown and the Grail that Never Was." Authuriana. 2004. http://www.smu.edu/arthuriana/lacy.pdf
  • The Louvre http://www.louvre.fr
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Warping Mona Lisa Nothing to Smile About, Experts Say." National Geographic. April 30, 2004.
  • Ritz Paris http://www.ritz.com/home_ritz/home_ritz.asp?show_all=1
  • Paris road map http://www.hot-maps.de/europe/france/paris/homeen.html
  • "Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco del Giocondo." Louvre. http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id= 10134198673226503&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226503& FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500816&bmUID=1145977971184& bmLocale=en
  • Travel Journal http://www.mike-reed.com/TravelJournal.htm
  • Van Biema, David. "The Ways of Opus Dei." Time. April 24, 2006.
  • "Westminster Abbey Counters Da Vinci Code." Guardian Unlimited. May 31, 2005. http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,1496206,00.html