At first glance, Javier Sierra's The Secret Supper plows just a little too close to the cotton of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Both novels deal in detail with Leonardo Da Vinci and three of his most famous paintings, The Last Supper (painted on the refectory wall in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy) 1495-1498, Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre) 1483-1486, and Virgin of the Rocks (London) 1495-1508.
Both novels deal with alleged secrets the Master intentionally introduced into his Last Supper, ostensibly to both ridicule Holy Mother Rome and to protect a secret "truth" about Jesus Christ and His extra-canonical life. Both books have as the center of this secret "truth" Mary Magdalene in a compelling relationship with Jesus, as well as Da Vinci being a member of a “secret” society. Both books address, albeit in dramatically different ways, the labyrinthine subterfuge employed by the Catholic Church in order to maintain power over and control of the world populace during the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. But gratefully, that is where the similarities end.
While The Da Vinci Code launched a fleet of books dealing with antiquity and the early Christian church, it was not the first book to deal with the subject. Umberto Eco's excellent Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum are excellent examples of earlier Roman Catholic intrigue that weave history and fiction into a totally entertaining, and believable tapestry. Eco branched out beyond the Church as focal point and integrated antiquity into is other novels including Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before.
Sierra’s research for The Secret Supper was conducted contemporaneously with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. Both authors visited the same places, read the same manuscripts, and came to similar, but differently developed conclusions. The two authors used different time vehicles with which to tell their stories.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was set in modern times with its protagonist an expert in religious symbology, Dr. Robert Langdon. Sierra’s The Secret Supper is set in 15th-century Italy, specifically 1497-98, when Da Vinci was finishing his The Last Supper. Rome sends an inquisitor, Father Agostino Leyre, to Milan, ostensibly for the funeral for Donna Beatrice d’Este, the wife of Il Moro Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, the latter who is Da Vinci’s patron for painting The Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie. The Duke fancies this monastery for his family burial vault.
While in Milan, Leyre is caught up in a murder mystery involving a character called “The Soothsayer” associated with Da Vinci and his paintings and the last remaining remnants of Cathar heresy found in Italy. The Cathar Heresy flourished in the Languedoc region of France in the 11th through the 13th century. The Cathars posed a danger to Rome in their belief, among others, that communion with God did not require an intermediary, the church. Moreover, Cathars believed that a stringently ascetic life (disparate from that in Rome was required for salvation) Da Vinci was thought to be one of the last of the Cathar Heretics and that he painted the secrets of the sect into The Last Supper. Catharism and the Languedoc are brilliantly presented in Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth.
Leyre follows riddles, twists, turns, and false observations trying to find both the mysterious killer, thought to be a Dominican monk, the last persecutors of the Cathars. (The Dominicans play a large part in C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution, demonstrating the appeal of this period intrigue in recent fiction). At the same time, Leyre comes under the spell of Da Vinci and his famous painting.
Leyre uncovers all of the secrets, in a plot twist recalling The Last Cato. He is kidnapped by the local Cathar community, shown their ways, and released to return to his job in Rome and ultimately to live a starkly ascetic existence in an Egyptian cave in the manner of Saint Paul of Thebes, commonly known as Paul the First Hermit, who live in a cave for 100 years in protection of this Christian Faith. It is here where he committed to paper his story Santa Maria della Grazie and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Overall, Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper is a very well researched non-starter. The story never captures a self-sustaining momentum, a fault that forces a good bit of the story’s importance into the last quarter of the book. Having said that, any book that requires outside study by the reader is a worthy book for consumption.