Books: Deciphering 'Code'

Who is that beardless figure with the flowing red hair to the left of Jesus Christ in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper? The textbook answer is Saint John, commonly depicted as the youngest and gentlest of the disciples. But in the best-selling thriller "The Da Vinci Code," author Dan Brown has another suggestion: the effeminate figure is Mary Magdalene, whose real relationship to Christ--his closest disciple and consort--has been suppressed by the church for nearly 2,000 years.

More than a half century after their discovery in Egypt, the so-called Gnostic Gospels, in which Mary Magdalene figures prominently, have emerged into popular culture. Actually, they were there all along, in the songs of minstrels, in the Tarot and in Arthurian legend. The mother lode of conspiracy theory concerns the underground brotherhoods that kept these traditions alive down to the present--variously identified as the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion and even those Main Street mystics, the Masons. But did da Vinci put Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper? "I never heard anything like it before, and it sounds like pure fiction to me," says Robert Coleman, an art historian at Notre Dame.