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The Da Vinci Code

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September 27, 2005

Filming The Da Vinci Code in the Cathedrals of Europe
by Jon M. Sweeney

Although Dan Brown’s novel has had a remarkable run at cash registers around the world for more than two years, it is still being stymied by clergy and theologians resentful and worried about the consequences of its claims.

Many church leaders of all denominations, including a Vatican archbishop, have spoken out against the book and its use of ancient Christianity as a backdrop for its thrilling tale. The author’s blending of fact and fiction would not normally hit the radar screen of clergy, except that more than 20 million copies of The Da Vinci Code have been purchased thus far worldwide. And now there is a major Ron Howard-directed film in the works. Filming began at the end of June.

Readers of Da Vinci will know that the plot follows the novel’s two main characters—Harvard symboligist Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) and gifted French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (27-year old French actress Audrey Tautou)—through many of the cathedrals and castles of Europe. The two are in search of evidence that the legendary Holy Grail, portrayed in Arthurian tales as the “cup of Christ” from the Last Supper, is actually a euphemism for the bloodline descended from Jesus and his supposed wife, Mary Magdalene. The two intrepid professors discover an intricate path of cover-ups organized by the Church over the course of history. Needless to say, the real-life Church has had something to say in response to Mr. Brown, as millions of readers have taken his narrative to be fact, not fiction.

Color photos of many of the cathedrals, castles and museums featured in The Da Vinci Code are pictured on Dan Brown’s official author website. Since the novel was first published and became a blockbuster, tourists have visited these places as if they, too, are following in the path of Langdon and Neveu. There are photos of The Louvre in Paris, The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan, Westminster Abbey in London, among other places discussed in the novel.

All of these locations have had to prepare responses to frequently asked questions related to Da Vinci. For example, on May 31, 2005, the BBC in London wrote the following about Westminster Abbey: “Guides at one of London's most famous churches are being given fact sheets to help answer queries about its role in the controversial Da Vinci Code book.” Westminster Abbey, in fact, closed its doors to the movie, refusing permission to film inside its walls. The dean of the abbey referred to the “unsoundness” of the theology of the book and screenplay as the reason for his decision.
In France, meanwhile, the Culture Ministry granted permission to Ron Howard for filming inside the Louvre. Presumably, no one at the Louvre is concerned about theological fidelity.

Other religious sites have been friendlier to the producers of the film, which is due out late next year. Lincoln Cathedral, east of London, played host to the cast and crew from August 15-19, as a replacement for Westminster. It was selected for its beauty, height (it was the tallest building in England during the Middle Ages), and its similar look to Westminster Abbey. Also, Lincoln simply said “yes.” They were reportedly paid £100,000 for their troubles.

Filming in Lincoln was not without incident, however. Roman Catholic nuns were seen praying outside the ancient building for days on end, telling reporters and tourists about the heresy in Dan Brown’s novel. Also, many observers were disappointed that the cathedral allowed for the silencing of “Great Tom,” Lincoln’s ancient bell, as that had not happened since air-raids made it necessary during World War II.

The dean of Lincoln Cathedral, the Very Reverend Alec Knight, called The Da Vinci Code “a load of old tosh,” even though he allowed filming to take place inside. Dean Knight explained: “I have been a school chaplain, and these are the sort of things [students] try to trip you up with. But if people come here because of it, then we have to look at what they go away with.”

Other spokespeople at the cathedral have emphasized that the film was invited simply in order to raise the cultural and religious landmark’s profile in Europe, while stressing that the claims in Brown’s work are completely fiction. Well, it certainly will look real.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His new book is THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE OF CATHOLIC TRADITION.
More by Jon Sweeney.

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