The Spanish novelist Javier Sierra has written a scintillating murder mystery, The Secret Supper, that, like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, attempts to decode the unique features of this crumbling five-centuries-old fresco on the wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.
Sierra's book, which sold 250,000 in his native Spain (pop. 40 million) before becoming a bestseller throughout Europe, has finally arrived here in a seamless English translation by Canadian writer Alberto Manguel. The Da Vinci Code cannot hold a candle to it for sophistication.
Though they both draw inspiration from the same well, in the words of Australian critic Alan Gold, "any comparison between Sierra and Brown is similar to pitting a Renaissance painter against a graffiti artist."
"I did not read Dan Brown's book until I finished my manuscript; it had just come out in Spanish and I wasn't going to read it but my wife pushed me," says Sierra, whose latest book was first out in 2004 as La cena secreta. It is the 34-year-old author's seventh work (three non-fiction, four novels).
"It was not news to me: many of his sources were well-known to me," he says. "His book is not well finished; the end is poor. But it excited the imagination of people and invited them to look for more information, and that has been wonderful for my book."
The Secret Supper has been published in 35 countries and is set to explode here. When we spoke in Toronto this week, Sierra was finishing a 10-city tour with his wife Eva, a ballet teacher whom he credits with helping him develop the psychology of his characters. An avid traveller, he speaks fluent English.
If you have not yet read The Da Vinci Code, this is your spoiler alert - Brown's plot hinges on the supposed marriage of Mary Magdelene and Jesus, based on the contention that the feminine figure next to Christ in The Last Supper represents the Magdelene. In Sierra's scheme, and according to art historians, that figure is John the Evangelist.
"Many masters in the Middle Ages used female models to paint John to give the idea of his purity," says Sierra. "I am sure Leonardo's model for this character was a lady, but the figure is John. We know that from Leonardo's notes. If we accept that it's the Magdelene, then where is John? We are missing a very important disciple."
The Secret Supper is set in late 15th-century Milan and most, though not all, of Sierra's characters are carefully researched historical figures. The story is told by a fictional monk, Father Augustino Leyre, who is dispatched by the Inquisition in Rome to check whether the unconventional fresco Leonardo is painting embodies heretical notions.
If Leonardo is not a heretic, why do Christ and his disciples not wear halos? Why is there no chalice or Paschal lamb on the supper table? Why no Eucharist? Who are the models for the Apostles and why do some have their backs turned to the Saviour?
You can find the review here