The Da Vinci Code Historical Context 📖

‘The Da Vinci Code,’ published in 2003, is a novel that sparked a lot of discussion in the Christian world and beyond, owing to the sensitive theories it holds about the life of Jesus on earth.

The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown

The book, which is often considered Brown’s best work, took the world by storm. The unique combination of fact and fiction, causing the reader to question every theory, has made the book a controversial goldmine and a great topic of discourse.

Historical Context

While the ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is set in the fairly recent year of 2003 and is fiction, it does make references to real historical subjects like the Holy Grail, the origin of the Priory of Sion, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD etc.

The Holy Grail is a sacred object that has been featured in various literature and certain Christian traditions. It is most often identified as the plate, or cup used by Jesus at the last supper; or the vessel that caught Jesus’ blood during his crucifixion. It is said that the Grail has the power to heal all wounds and possesses miraculous powers such as the ability to prolong natural life and the ability to revive the recently deceased.

There are many tales about the Grail. In one such tale, the man with the lance that pierces Jesus’ side on the cross is cured of blindness by the blood in the cup. Because of its association with Christ, the Grail became one of the great relics sought after by kings and knights for centuries. That is why many figures were interested in studying or writing about the Holy Grail.

As a secret society, the Priory of Sion is shrouded in mystery. On the first page of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ titled “Fact,” Brown claims it is a “European secret society founded in 1099,” and writes that in 1975, documents were found that identify figures like Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci as Priory members.

The more widely accepted account of the Priory of Sion tells that Pierre Plantard, after hearing the story of Bèrenger Saunière (a rumored member of the Priory who existed in the eleventh century), created a series of documents including false genealogical records that suggested his relation to the Merovingian line. With the help of his friend Phillipe de Chérisey, Plantard crafted fake parchments containing coded messages, all of which were introduced under pseudonyms into the Bibliothèque Nationale in the 1960s. But these “dossier secrets” were exposed as forgeries, and historians agree that there is no proof that the Priory has existed since the eleventh century.

The first council of Nicea was the first meeting held by the council of the early Christian church in 323 AD in ancient Nicea. It was called by Emperor Constantine, who presided in and took part in the discussions. The meeting was made up of about 300 bishops from around the Roman Empire who met to discuss the theological and administrative issues of the church and Christian faith. He hoped the general council would solve the problem of Arianism created by the Eastern Church. Arianism was a heresy proposed by Arius of Alexandria that Christ was not a divine being but was created and mortal.

Fact vs Fiction

The controversial point of the best seller is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child whose descendants later founded the Merovingian dynasty. Mary’s womb, not the chalice of the Last Supper, is the real Holy Grail, and a Catholic sect is killing people to hush it all up. The book also makes Leonardo Da Vinci the past leader of a shadowy order sworn to protect documents proving the existence of Jesus’s child.

According to Bart Ehrman, chairman of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina,

Most people who read The Da Vinci Code have no way of separating historical fact from literary fiction, and as such the book has spawned heated speculations on the various theories proposed within.

So let’s take a look at some details presented in the novel.

Leonardo Da Vinci

In the novel, Leonardo is presented as a flamboyant homosexual and a goddess worshipper who studies alchemy and immortality. He also hid pagan symbols in the many commissions he completed for the Vatican.

In reality, there are no historical sources suggesting that Da Vinci was a homosexual and, in fact, being flamboyant about it (if he was) was going to get him killed since it was a crime. There is evidence of a court case in 1476 in which he was accused by an anonymous source of sodomy, but he and the others involved were acquitted.

There is only one artwork commissioned to Da Vinci by the Vatican, which is the ‘Vatican Pinacoteca’, a ghostly unfinished rendering of St. Jerome in the Wilderness, and there is no evidence of heretic or pagan symbols hidden within, according to seasoned art historians. Authorities in the art world believe that the “hidden clues” to Leonardo’s “secret faith” exist only in the imagination of those looking to make a conspiracy theory plausible.

According to art historian Kenneth Clarke, Da Vinci was not “a religious-minded man,” but he objected to the commercial exploitation of relics, religious art, and pious sayings.

The Mona Lisa

The book says that ‘The Mona Lisa’ is a symbol of the sacred feminine and the balance between the two sexes because it is both male and female. Also, the “Mona Lisa” is an anagram for “Amon L’Isa,” a combination of the Egyptian god and goddess of fertility.

There is no evidence suggesting that ‘The Mona Lisa’ is a painting of a man and woman combined. Giorgio Vasari, in his biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, identified the sitter as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of wealthy Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo.

The name Mona Lisa cannot be a reference to the Egyptian gods because the name was not given by Da Vinci himself. There is no record of Da Vinci’s name for the painting, and it goes by different names.  It is most popularly called ‘The Mona Lisa,’ its “English” name, the French call it ‘La Jacande’ and Italians call it ‘La Gioconda.’

The Priory of Sion and the Knight’s Templers

The Priory of Sion also has a basis in fact, but not in the sense that Brown portrays it.

 In 1954, Pierre Plantard formed a group called the Priory of Sion to help those in need of low-cost housing. The group dissolved in 1957. Then in the 1960s and 70s, he created a series of forged documents to “prove” the existence of a bloodline descending from Jesus and Mary through to the kings of France. He and his associates called themselves the Priory of Sion and deposited these documents in libraries all over France, including the National Library.

In 1993, however, Plantard admitted under oath to a French judge that he had fabricated all the documents relating to the Priory of Sion.

The Knights Templar is based on history but, once again, not as portrayed in The Da Vinci Code. They were founded in 1118 as a military, religious order, were highly trained, and became known as fierce fighters. They acted as the advance force in a number of battles of the Crusades, but they did not become wealthy by discovering the secret of the Holy Grail, as alleged in the novel.

Opus Dei

In the book, Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.

In reality, the Opus Dei is a Roman Catholic lay organization that emphasizes piety and good works. Its founder Josemaria Escriva was born in Babastros, Spain, in 1902 and created the Opus Dei to empower lay people, instead of focusing on the spirituality of clergy. The characteristics of Opus Dei are self-denial and good sacrificial works within the context of the Roman Catholic Church.


Since the publication of ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ a steady stream of reviews, articles, essays, and books have been written by Christians and non-Christians to debunk or discuss its claims. Seminars, conferences and classes are organized to expose the gross historical inaccuracies of the book and the agenda of its author. Some churches have organized comprehensive projects to educate their congregations and the Christian public.

Brown admits that the theories that he presents are not new, but what is new is that for the first time, the public meets these theories in the form of a popular thriller causing its widespread. In his chosen format, Brown entices the readers until they are fully absorbed into the “secret” that he “unveils”. As one reader puts it,

I found myself unwillingly leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown’s research, only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me

Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel, in their book, ‘The Da Vinci Hoax,’ noted that

The Da Vinci Code is custom-made fiction for our time: pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self-congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial, and deviant. It has managed to tap into the deep reservoir of spiritual longing, restlessness, distrust, suspicion, and credulity

The success of the book can be further attributed to the fact that many people are not historically literate, so they just lapped up what the book presented without going further to confirm if they are true or not.

Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, while explaining why the book had a huge impact, said:

One thing that makes people so interested in Jesus is that we don’t have the answers. We’ve got these Gospels, but there are a lot of unanswered questions

To make matters more complex, there are people who have never read the ‘Bible’ but were ready to believe hook, line, and sinker the theories published by Dan Brown. As Lynn Garrett, religion editor for ‘Publisher’s Weekly,’ says

People may not be reading the Bible, but they want to read about the Bible

‘The Da Vinci Code’ led to the publication of more books on the Knights Templars, books on the Holy Grail, and books on Gnosticism, a phenomenon Mrs Garrett termed “the Da Vinci code effect.”

Adaptations and Awards

A movie adaptation of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was released in 2003 by Columbia pictures. With a screenplay written by Akiva Goldsman, and directed by Academy Award winner Ron Howard, the film stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu, and Sir Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing. The movie went on to conquer the box office with a return of $760 million at a budget of $125 million.

‘The Da Vinci Code’ won the 2003 Book Sense Award. In 2005, the book won the British Book of the Year Award. It also won the Indie Choice Award for Adult Fiction.


When was ‘The Da Vinci Code’ published

‘The Da Vinci Code’ was published on the 18th of March, 2003.

What inspired ‘The Da Vinci Code’?

The idea for ‘The Da Vinci Code’ came to Dan Brown while he was studying art history in Spain and learned about hidden symbols in Da Vinci’s paintings.

Who was the Merovingian dynasty?

The Merovingian dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751.

How much money did it take to produce ‘The Da Vinci Code’ movie?

Against a production budget of $125 million, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ generated $760 million for Columbia pictures.

Charles Asoluka
About Charles Asoluka
Charles is an experienced content creator, writer, and literary critic. He has written professionally for multiple reputable media organizations. He loves reading Western classics and reviewing them.
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