Leonardo da Vinci was an atheist

Mary Magdalene or John?

Dan Brown's bestseller “The Da Vinci Code” touches on a sensitive topic, namely the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and thus the question of whether Jesus was human and had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, and even if

Dan Brown's bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" touches on a sensitive topic, namely the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and thus the question of whether Jesus was human and had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene and was even married to her. And did Leonardo da Vinci in his famous "Last Supper" (1495-97) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie depict Jesus together with his alleged wife Maria Magdalena, or does this person represent the young John, Jesus' favorite disciple, next to Jesus? A fresco in a church in the canton of Ticino raises questions.


An impartial observer of the "Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci, who knows nothing about Jesus and the Christian religion, will describe this figure next to Jesus as a woman with one hundred percent certainty. The lovely, fine countenance, the graceful posture of the head and the light skin color of the oval face appear to the neutral observer as the epitome of femininity. One could almost see a quote from the feminine Madonnas and women of da Vinci's contemporaries Sandro Botticelli, as depicted in the round pictures “Madonna with the Pomegranate” or “Madonna of the Magnificat” in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In addition to the loveliness of Maria Magdalena, it is also noticeable that her complexion is significantly lighter than that of the other people, and this fact also evokes the impression of female gender in the neutral observer. Even in vase painting in ancient Greece, women were depicted with a white skin color, while the male skin was red.

Not with all, but with numerous depictions of the Last Supper by other artists, the viewer has a similar experience. Had it not been proclaimed again and again with the greatest certainty, with the feminine figure next to Jesus, who cuddles up to him or who gently strokes Jesus' head, if the favorite disciple John is meant, hardly anyone would have thought of this figure as a man to interpret. Representing the numerous examples that could be cited, the fresco in S. Onofrio di Fuligno, painted by Perugino around 1490, should be mentioned here.


Noteworthy is a painting in the canton of Ticino in Val Morobbia in the small Catholic parish church of SS. Giacomo e Filippo in Pianezzo, above Bellinzona. In this late medieval building, a wall fresco of the Last Supper can be seen, which according to the "Kunstführer Kanton Tessin" (Society for Swiss Art History) is dated to the second half of the 16th century. This representation of the Last Supper was modeled on Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper” in Santa Maria delle Grazie. Either the local artist knew the original painting from Milan, or, more likely, he knew a student's faithful copy of da Vinci, which is in the church of Ponte Capriasca, near Lugano. In any case, the unknown artist in the remote mountain village of Pianezzo has spruced up the small church with an imitation of the "Last Supper" by da Vinci. Although the Pianezzo painter did not have the same skills as Leonardo da Vinci, which is clearly evident in the simpler facial expressions of the sitter, he nevertheless largely adopted the gestures of the disciples portrayed by da Vinci and the arrangement in groups of three. Even more clearly than in the case of da Vinci, Petrus is holding a dagger in his hand, clearly visible in this painting, and Judas's purse is depicted just as clearly. What is striking about this painting is the pronounced femininity of the figure next to Christ, which in Dan Brown's book is interpreted as Mary Magdalene.

The Ticino fresco offers another surprise: The third person to the right of Jesus also apparently does not represent a man, but a woman. All other figures are depicted with beards, which clearly characterizes them as men. In addition, the two women do not stare at the viewer with big eyes, but rather cast down their gaze, as befitted the female sex of the time. In addition, their hands do not gesticulate like with the bearded men, but they are well folded or point to themselves, which means that the body language of both female persons is restrained and thus seems appropriate to a woman.


The likelihood that Leonardo da Vinci and other artists placed a woman next to Jesus on their depictions of the Last Supper cannot prove that Jesus actually sat next to a woman 1500 years earlier. It should be emphasized in this context that the Renaissance was the age of recourse to the Greek tradition and thus to pre-Christian ideas, to the Greek philosophers, especially to Plato. This return to Greek thought is also expressed in the performing arts, in the design of architecture, sculpture and painting.

In da Vinci's representation of the Last Supper, attention must also be paid to the group of three on the far right at the end of the table. The master has obviously portrayed himself as a disciple in the middle of the group, turns his back to Christ and discusses with the white-robed person at the end of the table, who seems to be none other than the Greek philosopher Plato, as a comparison with ancient busts shows. Whether da Vinci wanted to express a turning away from Christianity and a turn to Greek ideas, as Javier Sierra describes in his exciting novel “The Secret Last Supper” (“La cena secreta”, 2004), and whether there are others as well There are indications for the presence of Maria Magdalena at this point. In any case, it is unmistakable that da Vinci's Last Supper contains more than just a “simple” reproduction of the Last Supper of Jesus described in the Gospels. It becomes clear that the Renaissance artist painted according to the zeitgeist and that he symbolically integrated the philosophical currents and debates of the time into his painting. With this recourse, he is not the only painter of his time. His colleague Sandro Botticelli, for example, depicted the birth of Jesus in the painting “L'Adorazione dei Magi” (National Gallery London), not in a stable, but in the ruins of a Greek temple philosophical and / and also in a religious relationship, becomes evident.


The questions about da Vinci's representation of the Lord's Supper are therefore more complex. Even so, the riddle remains why Leonardo apparently put a woman next to Jesus; Which historical sources and traditions did he rely on, and above all: Why is this woman interpreted as a man to this day?

Dr. Elsbeth Wiederkehr is a legal scholar and classical archaeologist in Zurich.