CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The Da Vinci Code FAQ, or Will the Real Priory of Sion Please Stand Up?

by Massimo Introvigne

dan brown

The Da Vinci Code is just a novel: why criticize it as if it were a history book?

People who ask this question usually have not read the page of The Da Vinci Code titled Fact, where the author, Dan Brown, asserts that «all descriptions of [..]documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate» and are based specifically on the fact that «in 1975 Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments, known as Les Dossiers Secrets» which reveal the story of the Priory of Sion.


But do these «parchments, known as Les Dossiers Secrets», really exist?

At the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, certain documents called Les Dossiers secrets de Henri Lobineau were not «discovered», but rather deposited there, in 1967, not in 1975. They are not parchments but rather texts which speak about the way to interpret certain parchments, which were neither then nor now at the National Library of Paris, but were handed over by Pierre Plantard (1920-2000), along with a manuscript he wrote, to an author of popular books about «the mysteries of France» by the name of Gérard de Sède (1921-2004), who enhanced and published them as L’Or de Rennes ou la Vie insolite de Bérenger Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château (Julliard, Paris, 1967). As of today, the parchments (assuming they are in fact the same) seem to be in possession of a controversial French author, Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who claims to have received them from Plantard in the 1970s, while Les Dossiers secrets can still be found at the National Library in Paris.


Are the parchments and Dossier secrets authentic documents about the ancient Priory of Sion?

There is no doubt that both Les Dossiers secrets and the parchments are false documents, compiled in the year 1967, and all the people involved in the falsification have admitted it, even after a few years had passed. Gérard de Sède, who published them for the first time in his book L’Or de Rennes, in a book published twenty years later defined them as «apocryphal», inspired by a «market sensationalism» (G. de Sède, Rennes-le-Château. Le dossier, les impostures, les phantasmes, les hypothèses, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1988, p. 107). He even claimed that in L’Or de Rennes he had scattered enough clues to induce an attentive reader to the conclusion that they were false documents (ibid., p. 108). According to Gérard de Sède, the parchments were fabricated by Philippe de Chérisey (1925-1985), an impoverished French marquis who was a professional TV actor and a devotee of enigmatic riddles. Actually, de Chérisey not only has repeatedly admitted to the fabrication of these parchments, both in letters and published texts (Circuit, The Author, Liège 1968; L’Or de Rennes pour un Napoléon, The Author, Paris, 1975; L’Énigme de Rennes, The Author, Paris 1978), but from as early as October 8, 1967 (as confirmed by a letter from his lawyer, B. Boccon-Gibod, which the English researcher Paul Smith posted on his very detailed Priory of Sion web site), he began working - albeit without significant success up until his death - on getting paid, as it had been agreed, by Pierre Plantard and Gérard de Sède. De Chérisey also left a text to be published twenty years after his death, in fact published in 2006 as Pierre et Papier, where he explained how the false documents had been fabricated. Even the third of the Three Musketeers involved in the trick, Pierre Plantard, admitted that the documents were false. In April of 1989, in the first issue of the second series of his journal, Vaincre, Plantard granted an interview and declared that Les Dossier secrets (which are signed by a certain «Philippe Toscan du Plantier») are false documents fabricated by Philippe de Chérisey and by Philippe Toscan du Plantier, the latter being, he claimed, a young disciple of his who operated under the influence of the LSD (Noël Pinot, «L'Interview de Mr. Pierre Plantard de Saint-Clair», Vaincre [2a series], n. 1, April 1989). It is possible that in reality there was no such person as «Philippe Toscan du Plantier» (in this case, the name may have come from Daniel Toscan du Plantier, 1941-2003, a well-known figure in the French movie industry, certainly known to de Chèrisey, and who at that time worked for Gaumont), and the co-author of Les Dossiers secrets  with Chérisey was Plantard himself. But the essential point is that all three of the authors of the Dossier secrets and other «documents» deposited during those years at the National Library of Paris have admitted, publicly and in writing, that they were false documents.


But what was so interesting about Les Dossier secrets, and why according to Dan Brown do they support the thesis of  The Da Vinci Code?

According to Les Dossiers secrets de Henri Lobineau (which, incidentally, is a name invented by the same Three Musketeers), the legitimate heirs to the throne of France to this very day are still the Merovingians, dethroned in 751 by the Carolingians. Furthermore, contrary to public opinion, the Merovingians are not extinct but have surviving descendants still alive, the last of which in 1967 was Pierre Plantard, who was therefore the only true contender to the role of King of France (of course, under the improbable case of a restoration of the French monarchy). In order to protect the descendants of the Merovingians from the Carolingians and later from other enemies, a secret society was formed, the Priory of Sion, which - according to the false documents deposited at the National Library of Paris in the 1960’s - had as Grand Masters certain alchemists and esoteric personalities such as Nicolas Flamel (well known to Harry Potter readers, yet in reality an historical person born in 1330 and deceased in 1418), Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and the principal promoter of the Rosicrucian legend, Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), as well as scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The last of the Grand Masters would have been the writers Charles Nodier (1780-1844) and Victor Hugo (1802-1885), the musician Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the poet and novelist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and Msgr. Francois Ducaud-Bourget (1897-1984), a priest with ties to the schismatic Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991). Ducaud-Bourget (it was claimed) had transferred the position to Plantard. It was also claimed that, by pure chance, the truth concerning the Priory of Sion and the famous parchments, hidden in the parish Church of a small French village of less than one hundred inhabitants in the Aude region, at the foot of the eastern Pyrenees mountains, Rennes-le-Château, were supposedly discovered in 1897 by the local parish priest, Berenger Saunière (1852-1917), who, thanks to the knowledge of the secret, came into contact with the esoteric and political milieu of the time and became incredibly wealthy.


Wait a minute. In The Da Vinci Code, the main point is that the Merovingians, protected by the Priory of Sion, are not only the legitimate heirs to the throne of France but also the descendants of the children born from the marriage between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Do not Les Dossiers secrets and the other documents talk about this?

No, in fact they do not mention anything about this. The part about the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene originated between 1969 and 1970, when an English actor, Henry Soskin, who was mostly known for his role in the TV series The Avengers, became interested in the Priory of Sion. He later became a director (going by the name of Henry Lincoln) of documentaries about historical mysteries and lost treasures, and entered into contact with the threesome of Chérisey - Plantard - de Sède. Lincoln decided to re-write the story of L’Or de Rennes in a more suitable way, adapted for a British audience, presenting it first in three documentaries aired by the BBC between 1972 and 1979 and later in a book published in 1982 with the help of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (Jonathan Cape, London). Lincoln realized that the identity of the person who was the legitimate heir to the throne of France was not very interesting for his British audience. At the same time, Plantard introduced him into the microcosm of French esoteric organizations where he met Robert Ambelain (1907-1997), a well known figure in this milieu. In 1970, Ambelain had published Jésus ou Le mortel secret des templiers (Robert Laffont, Paris), in which he affirmed that Jesus Christ had a partner, while not being legally married, and identified this «concubine» as Salome. Lincoln meshed Ambelain’s story about the marriage of Jesus with that of the Merovingians suggested by Plantard, and «revealed» that the Merovingians protected by the Priory of Sion were important, not because they were the heirs to the throne of France, as much as because they were the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. The latter suited Lincoln better than Ambelain’s Salome because both of her connection with the parish church in Rennes-le-Château and of the Medieval legends claiming that she escaped persecution and eventually settled and died in Southern France (sans «husband» and children, however, which were never part of these legends).


But did Lincoln know that the documents were false?

Yes: not only because in the French milieu of the esoteric organizations into which he was introduced more or less everybody knew they were false, but because Philippe de Chérisey had told him so, as can be seen by letters from Chérisey himself (some reproduced in Pierre Jarnac, Les Archives de Rennes-le-Château. Tome 2, Belisane, Nice, 1988). Actually, the weak point of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was precisely that too many people knew about the dubious origin of the documents on which the story was grounded. Thus, after having dealt directly with Chérisey behind Plantard’s back, and then having turned down the marquis-actor too, in 1986 Lincoln and his associates launched a «sanitation» or «de-plantardization» of the Priory of Sion with the book The Messianic Legacy (Jonathan Cape, London). They presented as a great new discovery that which in certain French circles everybody already knew: Plantard was a con man (although perhaps not only a con man) and many of the documents were false. But some of the documents (the British insisted) were true. Perhaps Plantard was not the last descendant of Jesus Christ and the true Priory of Sion was not his organization. But, anyway, there were Merovingian descendants of the marriage between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. And there was a «genuine» Priory of Sion which was behind many contemporary events: the infamous Italian Masonic lodge P2, the scandals involving the Banco Ambrosiano, the schism of Msgr. Lefebvre, the Italian mafia and many others, in a tour de force which made the reader dizzy, and whose only common denominator was a quasi-pathological hatred of the «Vatican» and the Roman Catholic Church.


And so does The Da Vinci Code come from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail?

So much so that two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Baigent and Leigh (also offended because Brown, according to them, has added insult to injury by calling the villain of the story Leigh - first name - and Teabing - an anagram of Baigent - as his last name), in October of 2004 filed a lawsuit against Dan Brown, accusing him of having plagiarized their book. In fact, we do find there already the Priory of Sion's connections with the Chapel of Rosslyn, the Church of Saint-Sulpice, and the idea that the Holy Grail is really the Sang réal, i.e., a person containing in herself the blood of Christ. «Lincoln has decided not to be part of the copyright action because of ill health, but is said to support it» (Elizabeth Day, «Da Vinci Code Bestseller Is Plagiarism, Authors Claim», The Sunday Telegraph, October 3, 2004). On April 6, 2006 Brown won the case in first degree and on March 28 2007 on appeal on technical grounds (under British law, borrowing from a work of “history”, no matter how much controversial, is regarded as lawful, and Baigent & Co. always claimed that theirs was an historical rather than a fictional work), but the case did confirm both that Dan Brown got the key ideas for the Code from the British authors and that they in turn relied on Plantard's “elaborate hoax” - see first degree full decision and Brown's interesting “autobiography” filed as an affidavit in the London case; and the appeal decision.


Could not The Messianic Legacy have it right, in the sense that false documents were fabricated in order to corroborate a true story? Starting from the beginning, the Priory of Sion does exist, doesn’t it?

It certainly does exist. It was founded on the 7th of May, 1956 at Annemasse by Pierre Plantard with statutes duly filed with the Under-Prefect of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois with the complete name of Priory of Sion - C.I.R.C.U.I.T (Cavalry of Institution and Catholic Rule and of Independent Traditionalist Union). Article 3 of the statutes give an account of the origins of the name, which is derived not from Jerusalem but from Mount Zion (Sion in French), a hill near Annemasse, where they were supposed to construct «a Priory which would be a center of investigation, meditation, rest and prayer» for what was intended to be one of the many small esoteric orders that were common at the time in France. Aside from that, the Priory of Sion was built along the model of the other organizations that Plantard had founded since he was 17 years old in 1937, with the names: Union Française, Rénovation Nationale Française and Alpha Galates. The common characteristics between these organizations and the Priory of Sion were that they all were political in nature (they were monarchists, and Plantard was originally interested in the monarchist movement Action Française, although at Annemasse it was involved, above all, in promoting low-income housing) and the fact that they never had more than a dozen members. Anyway, the Priory of Sion founded in 1956 at Annemasse in a sense still exists today, as a tiny organization within the larger subculture of esoteric societies of France.


But wasn’t the Priory of Sion an organization founded by Godefroy de Bouillon (1060-1100), as claimed both by the Dossier secrets and by Dan Brown in the «Fact» page of The Da Vinci Code?

During the 1960’s, when he was preparing the Dossier secrets hoax, Plantard - who, as we know, originally borrowed the name «Priory of Sion» from a hill in Annemasse where he intended to build a center for spiritual retreats - discovered in the history of the Crusades (by which he was often inspired for his fantasies) an «Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion» founded in 1099 in Jerusalem precisely by Godefroy de Bouillon, who later became King of Jerusalem after the First Crusade. The community of monks of the Abbey (and not «Priory», as the superior was called Abbot and not Prior) in Palestine continued to exist until 1291, when it was destroyed by the advancing Muslims. The few surviving monks took refuge in Sicily, where their community was extinguished in the 14th century. This was a very normal community of Catholic monks, without any ties to the Knights Templar, Mary Magdalene or esoteric secrets: the «recovery» of which by Plantard was simply the use of their name, and nothing else.


And what about those important people, like Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Victor Hugo… Don’t they have some relation to the Priory of Sion?

Certainly not: neither do they have ties to Plantard’s Priory, founded in 1956; nor to the abbey of monks founded in Palestine, extinct in the 14th century. Actually, Plantard was inspired for his list of Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion by some of the lists of alleged «Imperators», i.e., supreme heads, and «distinguished members» of the AMORC, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, which circulated in France, were AMORC was quite successful. AMORC had been founded in 1915 in the United States by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883-1939), and Plantard was in contact with certain leaders of the French branch (some of them later left AMORC) dating back to the 1940's. Except for Cocteau and Msgr. Ducaud-Bourget (who, long before becoming famous, was vicar of the Paris church of Saint Louis d'Antin, where Plantard worked shortly as a sexton), all the names of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion can be found, coincidentally enough, in texts by  French leaders of AMORC. Many esoteric societies established from the 18th to the 20th century give to their members mythical genealogies that would include the Knights Templar, Noah, Saint John or King Solomon, as well as famous people of literature and art. Usually, most of their members are aware of the merely symbolic and mythical character of these genealogies.


But didn’t Leonardo leave traces of his knowledge of the secret of the Priory of Sion in his Last Supper, where the person painted to the right of Jesus actually appears to be a woman?

This idea has been defined as «absurd» by one of the most learned scholars of Leonardo, Professor Judith Veronica Field, who teaches at the University of London and is the current president of the Leonardo Da Vinci Society (cf. Gary Stern, «Experts Dismiss Theories in Popular Book», The Journal News, November 2, 2003). Given that in a painting, everyone tends to see what he or she wants to see, more or less suggested by the reading one has done, it is important to point out that whether or not the person depicted on the right of Jesus is a woman or a man, is not that relevant to the issue at hand here. Neither is it necessary to return to the question of whether or not Leonardo was heterosexual, homosexual or bi-sexual, about which a vast amount of literature exists, or whether his preference for masculine forms which seem effeminate should be considered important in this debate. Whoever decides to get worked up over this issue is really forgetting the essential point. Admitting that Leonardo thought that the person sitting next to Christ in the Last Supper was a woman, we have to ask ourselves how this demonstrates that: (a) he thought that person to be Mary Magdalene; (b) the fact that Leonardo thought such a thing would somehow make it true; (c) Mary Magdalene participated in the Last Supper because she was Jesus’ wife; (d) the two had children; (e) those children should have governed the Church; (f) to preserve this truth a secret society was born, the Priory of Sion; (g) and Leonardo was a member of the Priory. As we can see, it is a long road to walk down. Of all these steps not only are there no proofs, but we do know with certainty by whom, when, where and how the legend of the Priory of Sion was invented.


What about the parchments found by the parish priest, Saunière, at Rennes-le-Château and taken to Paris for examination, after which the priest became a millionaire?

Such parchments never existed, although the priest, during the renovation of his church, discovered some archaeological artefacts, currently on exposition in the Museum of Rennes-le-Château, but which have nothing to do with either Mary Magdalene or the Priory of Sion. Saunière, who left meticulous records about what he did and how much he spent each day (also available for consultation at the same Museum), never visited Paris in his life. Nor did he become a millionaire, even though he became wealthy enough to be able to acquire property and build a villa and library tower. His real - as opposed to fictional - wealth was explained during the course of a canonical process against Saunière started by the Bishop of Carcassonne, Paul Félix Beuvain de Beauséjour (1839-1930), the acts of which are also available for consultation. Beginning in 1896, Saunière embarked upon a road - illegal from the point of view of both canon law and civil law, but not invented by him nor particularly mysterious - of «trafficking in Masses». Between 1896 and 1915 from his meticulous notes one can deduce that he received stipends for at least one hundred thousand Masses: five or six thousand a year at the high point of the operation. The documentation exists: both in terms of letters and announcements in which a «poor priest» asks for stipends for the celebration of Masses sent to convents or other individuals; as well as in terms of publications in pious magazines throughout all of France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy - the list goes on and includes hundreds of benefactors approached many times over and recorded in accounts on a month-by-month basis. The objection, according to which at a time - unlike today - the Catholic Church did not tolerate that a priest could accumulate various intentions for a single Mass, it was impossible for Saunière to celebrate five or six thousand Masses a year, does not really makes the «trafficking in Masses» activity impossible, but certainly raises questions about the honesty of the priest: and it is an objection that is answered by itself. Simply put, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Château pocketed stipends for Masses that he would never celebrate.


Yet, aren’t there strange Satanic or Masonic symbols left by Saunière at Rennes-le-Château which would confirm his occult inclinations?

These are simply made-up stories. The works for the renovation of the parish church were commissioned by Saunière in 1896 to a famous company, the H. Giscard Père et Fils of Toulouse, which was solely responsible for the project. The H. Giscard company, founded in 1885 and in which several Giscard family members worked, was a firm which served numerous parishes, as well as the famous Carmel of Lisieux. Its headquarters have now been transformed into a Museum, but the great-nephew of the founder, Joseph Giscard, continues to work as a sculptor. The conventional style of the Giscard artists is famous in France and only the ignorance of some of those who propagated the Rennes-le-Château legend explains why certain symbols - found in many other Catholic churches around the world - could be interpreted as sinister or Satanic. Hence, we have the devil that supports the holy water basin (a demon evidently defeated by the holy water) or the words written above the entrance to the Church, Terribilis est locus iste, which simply come from the well-known vision of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, 17. The Bishop of Carcassonne, Msgr. Félix-Arsène Billard (1829-1901), a rather conservative prelate who went to see the new church on the occasion of a missionary effort in the village during Pentecost, 1897, certainly found nothing objectionable And those who see in the Way of the Cross of the Rennes-le- Château church «Masonic» symbols should reflect on the fact that many symbols later used by Freemasonry were corporative and Catholic symbols long before they became Masonic. The Giscard artists of the 19th century were well known and appreciated in the Catholic world precisely for their conventional (at times, exaggeratedly so) style, rather bereft of any uniqueness or surprises.


It is also said that the French painter, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1655), in his famous painting The Shepherds of Arcadia, depicted a tomb which is found in Rennes-le-Château, indicating his belonging to the Priory of Sion and his knowledge of the secrets…

In a certain sense, among the so many enigmas of Rennes-le-Château, this is the most delightful. The so-called «tomb of Arques» mentioned above was commissioned in 1932 (in substitution for a tomb previously constructed in 1903 and which did not even vaguely resemble the one in The Shepherds of Arcadia) by Louis Bertram Lawrence (1884-1954), an American businessman of French origin. Buried there are Emily Rivarès Lawrence (1863-1932) and Marie Rivarès (1843-1922), respectively the businessman’s mother and grandmother, as well as two cats owned by Marie Rivarès herself and which had been embalmed. All of the administrative documents concerning these constructions and reconstructions are still in existence. The tomb can be considered vaguely reminiscent of the 17th century painting by Poussin. The painting was well known in its own right and it is possible that it somewhat inspired the 1932 project. In 1988, the tomb was demolished by the actual owner with the authorization of the competent municipal authorities (those of the township of Peyrolles), tired of seeing it profaned by vandals searching for the secrets of the Priory of Sion. In any case, Poussin obviously could not have reproduced in a painting of the 17th century a tomb built in 1932.


Even admitting that the Priory of Sion is a hoax, are there not proofs in the «Gnostic» Gospels that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and that the early Christian community did not think he was God? And was this not the reason why the Catholic Church arbitrarily chose the four «inoffensive» Gospels as canonical during the Council of Nicea of 325, backed by the military strength of the Emperor Constantine (280-337)?

Not true: there are several texts of the first Christian century in which Jesus is clearly regarded as God. By the time of the Muratorian Canon - which dates from around 190 A.D. - the recognition of the four Gospels as canonical and the exclusion of the Gnostic texts was substantially completed, 90 years before Constantine was born. In terms of Mary Magdalene, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which Dan Brown likes so much, far from being a pro-feminist text, asserts that the greatness of Mary Magdalene lay in «[…] her having become a male». To Simon Peter, who objects that «Mary should leave us! Because women are not worthy of Life», Jesus responds: «Behold, I will guide her in such a way as to make her a male, so that she will become a living spirit equal to you males. Because every woman that becomes a male will enter into the kingdom of Heaven» (Gospel of Thomas, 114). Of course, here we see the Gnostic notion of androgyny which should not be taken literally: yet we are a long way away from feminism. Plus, no mention is made here of Jesus’ and Mary Magdalene’s children.


The Da Vinci Code implies that the Opus Dei is a «sect» which has entered into conflict with the Church in terms of its knowledge of the Priory of Sion’s secrets. Is this true?

In the first place, nobody can conceivably blackmail others on the basis of the «secrets of the Priory of Sion», which basically do not exist. These alleged secrets are part of a hoax which proceeds from Plantard to de Sède, from de Sède to Lincoln, and from Lincoln to Dan Brown. In terms of the Opus Dei (where,  by the way, there are no «monks», contrary to what Dan Brown proposes in his book), not only it is an institution approved and praised by the Catholic Church, but its founder, José María Escrivá (1902-1975), has been canonized as a saint by the Pope in 2002. Dan Brown’s «information» comes from an association of ex-members and other people hostile to the Opus Dei, known as The Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), mentioned explicitly in the novel, which is connected to a much larger «anti-cult movement» (whose controversial positions are amply criticized on this web site). ODAN’s aggressive opinions on Opus Dei and its founder are in no way shared by the Catholic hierarchy.


But how can such a bunch of wild claims attract more than 60 million readers?

This is a complicated question, to be examined from a sociological point of view. A more detailed discussion of this question is included in my book on the subject (in Italian), I would simply suggest here that The Da Vinci Code brings together two types of social «tastes» which appear to be quite widespread: on the one hand, the notion of «conspiracies» and secret societies that dominate the world; and on the other hand, an increasingly unashamed and virulent anti-Catholicism.