After the success of 'The Da Vinci Code' it seemed like every week, there was a new book on a similar theme, trying to cash in on the success of that one. 'The Secret Supper' will inevitably be compared with that book given the subject covered is so similar. But to be fair this one was originally released in 2004 and was going to be written regardless of any other book.
The story is set at the end of the 15th century as Leonardo Da Vinci is working on The Last Supper. The Church has suspicions that he is hiding messages in the painting and send Agostino Leyre, an inquisitor who is an expert in cryptography and theology, to get to the bottom of it, before it is finished. What then follows is the tale of the inquisitor slowly establishing what the hidden messages are and then trying to interpret them.
The book is written by Javier Sierra and was originally released in Spanish. The translated version was made available after the success of the original. I usually enjoy the translated novels as they have to be of a good standard to be translated. When it comes to topics such as this I often find that they are more authentic than the British or American written novels. This one is no different. Sierra creates a world you become immersed in and although I am not keen on historical novels this one worked very well in that respect.
This book could be described as a study of that one painting but others are mentioned as well. It is necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the paintings or at least have access to viewing them (I found all I needed online). What is extremely helpful, in the version of the book I have, is a colour print of the Last Supper on the inner cover. I found I was frequently referring back to this print and it added a lot to the novel. There is also a cast of characters at the back of the book. This was another useful addition, especially if you are not able to read the book in a few sittings.
I also think you will gain more from this book if you are familiar with the background to the Catholic Church arriving at the 15th century and also with subsequent happenings. Especially an awareness of things like the Cathars, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran and the Gnostic Gospels of Nag Hammadi. You can read the book without this but you may get as much from it as you otherwise would. I certainly don't have a detailed knowledge of these things (just what I've picked up from other books on the subjects), a passing knowledge is enough though.
I remember looking at the Last Supper when I was relatively young (it was the main alter piece at our local chapel) and being struck by how odd it looked but the more you see it the more you stop actually looking at it. I think the thing that originally struck me was how divisive it looked. This is explained by Sierra, he believes this painting is of the moment Jesus reveals that one of his disciples will betray him, rather than the more traditional breaking of the bread. It is clear that there are a number (potentially a great number) of hidden messages in this painting. Some of the more obvious questions raised are
Why is Peter holding a dagger behind his back?
Why are Judas and Jesus about to go for the same piece of bread (neither looking at it) when there are plenty between them?
Why is their a knot at only one end of the tablecloth?
Why are the disciples bunched in obvious groups of three?
Why is Thomas pointing at the ceiling?
Why do Matthew and Judas Thaddeus have their backs turned to Jesus?
This is only a small sample of the questions raised. In fact if you carefully look at the painting, as if you had never seen it before, you will no doubt find plenty of other things which appear odd. Sierra does a good job of explaining all of these unusual elements but is rather ponderous in doing so. I expected the revelations to be the highlight of the novel but if anything it was an effort to get through them. This was a real let down as the first half of the book set things up excellently but I finished the book with a feeling of disappointment.
However, I think the book is a real success in asking questions and increasing your interest in the matters discussed. Something very few books achieve so in that respect it is a success. You may or may not agree with the author's conclusions but at least the evidence is laid out in such a logical manner that it is easy to follow those conclusions.
I think the biggest criticism of this book is that it can come across as more of a study into the painting, than a true fictional novel. It does not read as well as other fictional stories on the subject. Having said that it had a few interesting interpretations and I am glad I read it; but it falls between two stools. If you want a good fictional read, sadly the Da Vinci Code is better, and if you want a more factual interpretation, then the likes of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail or numerous others are better.
I would give it 7/10 so on Dooyoo it will need to be three stars as I think four would be misleading.
Oh, and as a final thing, see if you can spot Da Vinci's face on one of the disciples.
315 pages in the story