They came in masses: teachers, social workers, even the odd biblical scholar, filling the 420-seat auditorium at the Walters Art Museum and spilling into the hallway. Some drove for an hour or more on a work night to watch five people sit on stage and talk about a book.
Such is the appeal of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's fictional treatise that melds together the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Catholicism, the Holy Grail, murder and secret societies.
Barely 19 months after it was published, the book's publisher already is claiming that it is the most popular hardcover book yet printed. With sales of 16 million copies worldwide, including 8.9 million in North America, it handily surpasses the previous champ, according to a Doubleday spokeswoman. (The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller racked up sales of 6 million copies worldwide in the two years after its publication.)
The Da Vinci Code begins with the murder of a curator at the Louvre museum in Paris. When Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor who is an expert on symbols, arrives at the scene he realizes that the man's naked body is arranged to resemble Da Vinci's famed Vitruvian Man. Langdon joins up with the victim's beautiful granddaughter, a cryptologist, to unravel the mystery that the victim died to protect - one involving clandestine societies, the foundations of Roman Catholic doctrine and the true meaning behind the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.
Even if the novel didn't suggest that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child by her, The Da Vinci Code still would be controversial. With its free mingling of real locations, historic personages, invented characters and conspiracy theories, it can be difficult for readers to separate what is true from what is make-believe.
In an effort to do just that, there has been a national television special about The Da Vinci Code on ABC, church-sponsored seminars and books by theologians debunking the novel.
Brown's novel has inspired pilgrimages to the same crumbling churches in France and Scotland that his fictional sleuths scoured for clues. One such edifice, St. Sulpice Church on Paris' Left Bank, has received more than 20,000 visitors this year, according to The London Times. Church caretakers even have put up an English-language notice attempting to separate fact from fiction. "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel," the notice reads, "this is not a vestige of a pagan temple."
And the furor seems unlikely to end quickly: An illustrated version of The Da Vinci Code will be published Nov. 2. A film, directed by Ron Howard, is scheduled to be released next year. And finally, Brown has announced that The Da Vinci Code is just the first in a series of "symbology thrillers" featuring the same protagonist, Langdon. Books in the series will be set in London, Paris and our monument-heavy neighbor to the south, Washington.
All of which inspired the Walters' staff last week to convene a panel of four experts in Christianity, art history, pop culture and da Vinci, and to pose the question: What makes the book so phenomenally popular?
Goucher College art history professor Gail Husch says that while other books may have sold more copies over the years, no religious-themed work has rivaled The Da Vinci Code in popularity at the time it was published. The closest competitor, she says, is an 1836 tome called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which purports to be an insider's scoop by a nun who escaped from a Montreal convent about what really goes on behind cloistered walls. The book sold upward of 250,000 copies by the start of the Civil War - even though it demonstrably was untrue and its author severely disturbed.
And, like The Awful Disclosures, The Da Vinci Code itself is an odd blend of fiction and the occasional fact.
"It's really a fun read," panelist Jonathan Pevsner cheerfully told the audience. "And almost every reference in it to Leonardo da Vinci is historically inaccurate." (Pevsner, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, owns more than 600 books about the artist.)
For instance, Leonardo never exhumed corpses, Pevsner said. Nor was he flamboyantly homosexual. Nor did he intentionally name his painting Mona Lisa because of its similarity to Amon L'Isa, which refers to two Egyptian fertility gods. All of which Brown's book claims. (The artist actually named the painting Monna Lisa - an abbreviation for "Madonna" and a reference to his subject's pregnancy, Pevsner said.)
Just for starters.
"I just tell people to enjoy the fiction," Pevsner said.
Another panelist's assessment was even more blunt.
"Why are so many of us so willing to believe that a novel that we bought in the fiction section of a bookstore is true?" asked Rosann Catalano, the Roman Catholic staff scholar at the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies. She thinks the fervor that The Da Vinci Code has inspired reveals troubling insights into American culture.