The Da Vinci Code convinced millions of people that a secret plot hid the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for two thousand years. The mysterious organization behind the deception was called the Priory of Sion, and its illustrious grand masters included Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton. It almost sounds like the conspiracy behind the Knights Templar, whispered about for centuries as an underground secret society. Unsurprisingly, with such an important mission, the Priory of Sion comes off like one of the best secret societies to join.
There's just one problem: the entire story was a hoax created by a Frenchman named Pierre Plantard de Sinclair. Plantard created dozens of forged documents full of secret Priory of Sion rituals and information about Priory of Sion members, and he hid them in the French National Library. When researchers found the documents, they fell for the hoax, and so did Dan Brown and his millions of fans.
According to the hoax, the leader of the Priory of Sion, Da Vinci, hid secret codes in his paintings. But that wasn't all; the hoax also included a Nostradamus prophecy, the French royal family, the secret descendants of Jesus, and a treasure hidden in a castle. The entire lie was created to prove that Pierre Plantard and Jesus were related.
The man behind the hoax admitted he made up the entire thing when a scandal blew up in France, but apparently Dan Brown didn't get the memo. The first line in The Da Vinci Code reads: "Fact: The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization.”
It wouldn't be a good hoax if it didn't involve Nostradamus. The 16th-century doctor is famous for his predictions of the future, some of which came true and some of which did not. One of Nostradamus's prophecies spoke of a "great monarch... ravishing the treasure in front of the temples."
The riddles in Nostradamus's prophecies made them open to interpretation, but also vulnerable to hoaxes. Pierre Plantard, a French veteran of World War II, decided that he was the prophesied great monarch, and created fake manuscripts to show he was a direct descendant of the Merovingian kings and Jesus himself. But instead of fulfilling the prophecy, Plantard simply created an elaborate hoax.
In The Da Vinci Code, Leonardo da Vinci was a secret grand master of the Priory of Sion, and hid messages about the secret society in his paintings. Brown took that idea directly from Plantard, who forged a list of the Priory of Sion's grand masters. The list included Nicolas Flamel, Robert Fludd, Botticelli, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo da Vinci, among many others.
Plantard and his co-conspirator, Philippe de Chérisey, created multiple fake manuscripts which contained the "secrets" of the invented Priory of Sion. These documents were hidden in the French National Library, where other scholars discovered them and believed they were genuine. The forged list of grand masters was published in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, where Brown read it and created his own version of the Da Vinci story.
Plantard wove another mystery into his hoax: the treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau, the castle in a small French village. In the 1890s, the Catholic priest Bérenger Saunière suddenly became fabulously wealthy, with no explanation for his riches. His salary of 900 francs a year certainly didn't account for his spending of 660,000 francs. Rumors swirled for decades that Saunière had discovered a hidden treasure - or a hidden secret that made him rich.
Plantard heard the story had asked a friend of his to create forged documents that the priest supposedly discovered in the chateau. He pointed friends to the documents, encouraging them to write about the mystery. And suddenly the "Priory of Sion" was responsible for the priest's wealth: they must have paid him off to keep a centuries-old secret.
However, Saunière likely got rich by "trafficking in masses," a practice that involved charging a stipend to celebrate hundreds or thousands of masses.
In The Da Vinci Code, hero Robert Langdon sees a hidden message in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. The figure to the right of Jesus is not an apostle at all - it's his secret wife Mary Magdalene, and the position of the bodies even spells out the letter "M" for marriage. Today, many of Leonardo's most famous works are at the Louvre in Paris, which even provides a special "Da Vinci Code" route through the museum.
But the idea of hidden messages in paintings is nothing new. In fact, Brown might have also borrowed that idea from hoax master Plantard. In this case, the painting was by 17th-century artist Nicholas Poussin, titled "Et in Arcadia Ego." Plantard claimed the phrase, memorialized on a tomb surrounded by shepherds, did not mean "Even in Arcadia, there I am," a reference to death, but instead stood for the mysterious and hidden Priory of Sion.
Later conspiracy theorists claimed the phrase was an anagram for "I! Tego arcana dei!" meaning "Go Away! I hold the secrets of God."