Byline: ANNA VAN PRAAGH;CLAIRE COHEN
It is one of the world's most famous paintings - an iconic image depicting - Jesus Christ sitting with his 12 disciples before the betrayal by Judas that will lead to his death, his resurrection and ascension.
Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper has rightly earned its place as the most powerful representation of an event steeped in foreboding and poignancy.
But it has long been suspected by conspiracy theorists that there's far more to this painting than meets the eye.
For instance, who is the effeminate looking disciple sitting on Jesus's right? It is traditionally thought to be St John. But is it even a man? One controversial theory is that it is Mary Magdalene, Jesus's most famous female follower, who has been portrayed for much of the past 2,000 years as a reformed prostitute.
This is strange enough, but some have even argued that Magdalene was married to Jesus and they had a daughter - and that her bloodline continues to this very day. What's more, the argument goes, the Catholic Church, as part of its misogynistic attempts to suppress women, has kept this secret for centuries and in so doing thwarted the true message of Christ.
This astonishing theory lies at the centre of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, the bestselling thriller that has sold ten million copies worldwide - with 670,000 copies bought in the UK alone.
The book has been the holiday reading choice of thousands this summer and its popularity is such that locations featured in the book - the Louvre in Paris, London's Temple Church and Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh - all report surges in visitor numbers, as fans retrace the novel's journey.
Brown, a 39-year-old American, calls his book a 'work of fiction', but many of the sources he uses are genuine and the allegations he makes are so serious that his book has left the Catholic Church in turmoil, even testing the faith of some Christians.
Brown has been attacked for getting basic facts wrong, most notably the geography of Paris.
But, nevertheless, it is based on a tangled web of real-life secrets, lies, mystery and intrigue surrounding claims which, if true, would have extraordinary consequences for humanity, Christianity and world religion.
The Da Vinci Code begins with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, curator of the Louvre. To most readers, the name Sauniere will mean nothing. But Brown has plucked it from real life: Berenger Sauniere was the village priest in Rennes-le-Chateau, France, who became inexplicably wealthy at the end of the 19th Century. Many have speculated on how he acquired his wealth.
The most common belief is that, having discovered a secret of great interest to the Roman Catholic Church, he was paid for his silence. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1917. And he plays a central role in the real-life mystery that inspired Brown.
Brown's Sauniere has a similarly shadowy background. He is a member of an ancient secret society called the Priory Of Sion who, in the moments before his death, leaves gruesome clues that only his granddaughter, a noted cryptographer, can solve. Brown asserts that The Priory, a secret society of geniuses, including Isaac Newton and da Vinci, knew the explosive secret of Christ's marriage, handed down to them from the Knights Templar, and that da Vinci, allegedly a grand master of the Priory Of Sion between 1510 and 1519, desperately tried to convey the message through his seminal 1495 work the Last Supper.
The painting, which is now hanging in the refectory of a convent in Milan, has had a fascinating and chequered past. It has survived a door being cut through its centre, vandalism by Napoleon's troops and Allied bombing.
Consequently, little of the original paint remains, and during its restoration in 1954 it was difficult to accurately reproduce the facial expressions of the disciples. …