Friday, June 29, 2007

The Cryptogram of Caravaggio

Since Wednesday's post, we've heard from many readers who've been eager and anxious to view the manuscript fragment retrieved by Randal Bufton and sent to us. We want to warn you once again, though, that its contents are very controversial, and are liable to offend, provoke, and otherwise shock many of your most deeply-held beliefs. But we believe that beliefs are most believable when their very believability face unbelievable doubts.

A final prefatory note before the feature presentation. Mr. Bufton notes that in the manuscript's margins, the un-known author has written: "Insert this during scene in museum, while Lincoln and Marie are in London." That we do not have the rest of the novel, or even the scene, is a great loss that calls to mind the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

And so, if you are ready to forget all you know...and all you think you know, click below.

From The Cryptogram of Caravaggio:

For several moments they stared at the painting before them. Finally, Lincoln’s voice broke the silence.

“Truly remarkable,” he said.

“What is it?” Marie’s voice rose as if she were excited to know the answer to her question.

“I don’t know how I’ve overlooked this.”

She asked again, “What?” Her anticipation came through in the way she spoke.

“What I’ve observed is quite interesting!”

“I can’t wait to find out what it is.” If you could have heard her, you would be able to tell that she was very excited, and you would have believed it when she said, “I can’t wait to find out what it is.”

Lincoln directed her attention to the center of the canvas, on which Caravaggio had placed variously hued paints in a deliberate manner.

“Do you notice anything peculiar about the hands of Jesus?”

Marie observed the painting more carefully. Though this was her first time seeing this painting, it looked like many others by Caravaggio. She’d adored Caravaggio’s work since she was a little girl, when her grandfather, who—she would be shocked to learn much later—was also the father of one of her own parents, used to show her around the art museums of the remarkable European city in which she grew up. Even as a child she knew that Caravaggio had literally given birth to paintings that, metaphorically-speaking, amazed people to this day. You’d recognize many of these works, even if his name doesn’t ring a bell. He’s sort of like that band Three Dog Night—when you mention their name, everyone’s like, “who’s that?” Then you say, “You know,” and start singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!” and “Celebrate! Celebrate! Dance to the music!” and “Momma told me not to come!” and “American Woman!” Then the person’ll say, “oh yeah, I know them! They’re awesome!” But you’d be wrong, because the Guess Who does “American Woman,” but they’re another band like that. In fact, the Guess Who’s a better example, because Three Dog Night didn’t write their own songs, but the Guess Who did, and Caravaggio painted his own stuff.

He was very successful in his own lifetime, but one day he killed a person and had to flee Rome. He spent the rest of his life on the lamb, which was a strange form of transportation even then. Still, the Italian continued to paint nice things until he died suddenly of very mysterious causes, joining Keats, Dickinson, and Cobain in the pantheon of visionaries too soon lost to this world.

She’d memorized every detail of the painter’s greatest works. So she was delighted to be staring at an un-discovered masterpiece, but frustrated that she was unable to answer Lincoln’s quiz. No matter how much she squinted her eyes or blurred her vision, no image hidden in the background gradually appeared in the forefront. It remained a typical Caravaggio, with a single light source, dramatic action, and an event that was probably based on some book, maybe a play by Shakespeare or Chaucer or someone like that.

“I can’t see what you’re talking about,” she articulated. Her voice was now sad, almost unhappy. “Everything looks fine to me.”

Though they’d only spent a few hours together, Marie had the impression that she knew Professor Rupert Lincoln fairly well. As soon as she met him, Marie sensed that Lincoln was about six feet tall and had an athletic build, rare among scholars of his stature. She could tell that he liked to wear a sports coat, cotton Dockers, a checkered dress shirt and a solid tie. With his charming demeanor and full head of hair, peppered with salt-colored gray streaks, she knew he had no trouble attracting women. As a professor, he was popular among his students; as a scholar, revered by his peers; as an author of popular-yet-respected art history books suitable for the classroom and coffee-table, successful.

Perhaps she knew him so well because their hours together were exceptionally exciting: first the discovery of the body in that strange place; then the phone call at an odd hour; a couple of people whom neither of them trusted very much; that one person who she trusted but he didn’t, and whom she shouldn’t have and he was right not to; the woman he trusted and she didn’t, and once again he was right because it turns out that woman was only speaking Portuguese, not in anagrams as Marie had suspected.

“Are you sure?” he asked. This was in response to her statement that everything about the painting looked just fine; she’d said that just a moment ago; it only feels like longer.

“Yes. It looks just like any other Caravaggio. What do you see?”

“Let me put it this way: I’d love to give you a hand.” Then he pointed at the canvas, directly at the hands of Jesus.

“They’re closed,” she said. “So what?”

“Remember the painting we saw in Rome early this morning?”

Of course she did. Its image was seared in her consciousness like a strong memory. “He was pointing right at St. Matthew,” she said.

“Yes, he was. The position of his hand gesture was based on Michelangelo’s painting of the creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There both God and Adam are gesturing that way.”

“Then it’s quite appropriate,” she ventured, “that Caravaggio would have Jesus pose that way, since the Sistine Chapel is such a masterpiece.”

Lincoln shook his head ruefully. “If only it were that simple, Marie. If only.” She could tell by the way that his second sentence repeated a key phrase from his first that this regret was sincere.

“This is not a matter of mere art history,” he continued. “No, I’m afraid it’s much more than that. This painting may change everything we ever thought about Caravaggio, and even Christianity.”

He paused for several seconds.

“My interest is piqued,” she said.

“As you probably know, the world used to be a crazy place, thanks in no small part to the invention of the printing press in 1492 or thereabouts. Before the printing press, very few people could read. Those few who could read were easy to identify even when they weren’t reading. You see, people who read a lot become reliant on visual gestures for communication. Hearing is no longer enough; they must also see the information they want. Because before the printing press very few people could read, hand gestures were a mark of refinement and education. Just as you can now identify a person’s personality by the car they drive and the clothes they wear, before the printing press the extent of their gesturing was a fair barometer of wealth.”

“Only an idiot would not find this fascinating,” said Marie.

“I know. But with the advent of the printing press, more people read; as more people read, more people gestured. Soon it was like a popular dance move: everyone was doing it. Chubby Checkers would’ve written a song about it. So by the time Caravaggio was born, gestures were not an upper-class symbol, but a lower-class one. Consequently, to represent their distance from the masses, the rich began to gesture less.”

“I think I can see why representations of Christ would be so significant. But please explain to make sure I’m right.”

“Of course. It was important for painters of the time be as theologically accurate as possible, so when gesturing became a mark of poverty, the Vatican insisted that paintings represent Jesus as a gesturer, like the poor people he served. That explains Caravaggio’s painting of St. Matthew. And do you remember the one we saw in the millionaire’s mansion in Paris this morning?”

“Yes! He was raising Lazarus from the dead with the same gesture.”

“Precisely. And the postcards in the airport in Egypt this afternoon?”

He was blessing the bread with the same gesture. He does it again in the later version of the painting we saw in Beijing just before dinner!”

“Yes. And in some of the works, saints make the same gesture. Like the one of St. Thomas hanging in Reykjavik we saw during desert.”

“And the one of St. Andrew in Cairo.”


“And when St. Peter denies Jesus, he makes the opposite gesture—he points inward!”

“Let’s not get carried away. The point is that Caravaggio’s paintings conveyed the party line of the Vatican. And thanks to his paintings, Christians continue to believe that Jesus was a poor man; and as a result, Italians still gesture emphatically when they speak!”
But around this time arose an underground, heretical sect called the Society Not of Belief. Basing their opinions on ancient scrolls and apocryphal texts, the SNOBs argued that Jesus was, in fact, rich. Not only had Mary’s parents been loaded, but Joseph’s carpentry business didn’t do so bad for itself. When Joseph died, Jesus inherited the family fortune.”

“So that’s why the Bible doesn’t even mention that Joseph died!”

“Precisely. With that money, Jesus retired early and traveled the Middle East before getting mugged at Calvary.”

The truth dawned on Marie, casting its light on her mind the way the sun casts light on the horizon at the end of the day. “So if the Society of Not Belief is right, then much of the Bible is just wrong, right? All that talk about the poor inheriting the earth?”


“That last shall be first, the first shall be last?”

“Not so much.”

“What about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than the rich to enter Heaven?”

“That one just doesn’t even make any sense!”

“And you’re suggesting that this painting means that…”

Suddenly a door slammed upstairs. They stayed as still as possible. They could recognize the heavy footsteps of the murderous nun with the acne problem.


Adele said...

Now I see questions marks everywhere I turn! What am I to believe? O how I rue the day the author of this great and terrible manuscript put pen to paper. This is a truth that need never be told!

Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci said...

Index Librorum Prohibitorum!

Charles Ryder said...

After my faith survived The Da Vinci Code, I thought I was set for life. Surely nothing could shake my faith as much as that book! Now, though, my once-strong faith has deserted me. I see the truth; the Bible is a fraud. Thank you for enlightening me.