Peccatum ... Peccatum ... Peccatum ...
The seven Ps written on the back of Dante's death mask immediately pulled Langdon's thoughts back into the text of The Divine Comedy. For a moment he was back onstage in Vienna, presenting his lecture "Divine Dante: Symbols of Hell."
"We have now descended," his voice resounded over the speakers, "passing down through the nine rings of hell to the center of the earth, coming face-to-face with Satan himself."
Langdon moved from slide to slide through a series of three-headed Satans from various works of art-Botticelli's Mappa, the Florence baptistry's mosaic, and Andrea di Cione's terrifying black demon, its fur soiled with the crimson blood of its victims.
"Together," Langdon continued, "we have climbed down the shaggy chest of Satan, reversed direction as gravity shifted, and emerged from the gloomy underworld ... once again to see the stars."
Langdon advanced slides until he reached an image he had shown earlier-the iconic Domenico di Michelino painting from inside the duomo, which depicted the red-robed Dante standing outside the walls of Florence. "And if you look carefully ... you will see those stars."
Langdon pointed to the star-filled sky that arched above Dante's head. "As you see, the heavens are constructed in a series of nine concentric spheres around the earth. This nine-tiered structure of paradise is intended to reflect and balance the nine rings of the underworld. As you've probably noticed, the number nine is a recurring theme for Dante."
Langdon paused, taking a sip of water and letting the crowd catch their breath after their harrowing descent and final exit from hell.
"So, after enduring the horrors of the inferno, you must all be very excited to move toward paradise. Unfortunately, in the world of Dante, nothing is ever simple." He heaved a dramatic sigh. "To ascend to paradise we all must-both figuratively and literally-climb a mountain."
Langdon pointed to the Michelino painting. On the horizon, behind Dante, the audience could see a single cone-shaped mountain rising into the heavens. Spiraling up the mountain, a pathway circled the cone repeatedly-nine times-ascending in ever-tightening terraces toward the top. Along the pathway, naked figures trudged upward in misery, enduring various penances on the way.
"I give you Mount Purgatory," Langdon announced. "And sadly, this grueling, nine-ringed ascent is the only route from the depths of inferno to the glory of paradise. On this path, you can see the repentant souls ascending ... each paying an appropriate price for a given sin. The envious must climb with their eyes sewn shut so they cannot covet; the prideful must carry huge stones on their backs to bend them low in a humble manner; the gluttonous must climb without food or water, thereby suffering excruciating hunger; and the lustful must ascend through hot flames to purge themselves of passion's heat." He paused. "But before you are permitted the great privilege of climbing this mountain and purging your sins, you must speak to this individual."
Langdon switched slides to a close-up of the Michelino painting, wherein a winged angel sat on a throne at the foot of Mount Purgatory. At the angel's feet, a line of penitent sinners awaited admittance to the upward path. Strangely, the angel was wielding a long sword, the point of which he seemed to be stabbing into the face of the first person in line.
"Who knows," Langdon called out, "what this angel is doing?"
"Stabbing someone in the head?" a voice ventured.
Another voice. "Stabbing someone in the eye?"
Langdon shook his head. "Anyone else?"
A voice way in the back spoke firmly. "Writing on his forehead."
Langdon smiled. "It appears someone back there knows his Dante." He motioned again to the painting. "I realize it looks like the angel is stabbing this poor fellow in the forehead, but he is not. According to Dante's text, the angel who guards purgatory uses the tip of his sword to write something on his visitors' foreheads before they enter. 'And what does he write?' you ask."
Langdon paused for effect. "Strangely, he writes a single letter ... which is repeated seven times. Does anyone know what letter the angel writes seven times on Dante's forehead?"
"P!" shouted a voice in the crowd.
Langdon smiled. "Yes. The letter P. This P signifies peccatum-the Latin word for 'sin.' And the fact that it is written seven times is symbolic of the Septem Peccata Mortalia, also known as-"
"The Seven Deadly Sins!" someone else shouted.
"Bingo. And so, only by ascending through each level of purgatory can you atone for your sins
. With each new level that you ascend, an angel cleanses one of the Ps from your forehead until you reach the top, arriving with your brow cleansed of the seven Ps ... and your soul purged of all sin." He winked. "The place is called purgatory for a reason."
Langdon emerged from his thoughts to see Sienna staring at him over the baptismal font. "The seven Ps?" she said, pulling him back to the present and motioning down to Dante's death mask. "You say it's a message? Telling us what to do?"
Langdon quickly explained Dante's vision of Mount Purgatory, the Ps representing the Seven Deadly Sins, and the process of cleansing them from the forehead.
"Obviously," Langdon concluded, "Bertrand Zobrist, as the Dante fanatic that he was, would be familiar with the seven Ps and the process of cleansing them from the forehead as a means of moving forward toward paradise."
Sienna looked doubtful. "You think Bertrand Zobrist put those Ps on the mask because he wants us to ... literally wipe them off the death mask? That's what you think we're supposed to do?"
"I realize it's-"
"Robert, even if we wipe off the letters, how does that help us?! We'll just end up with a totally blank mask."
"Maybe." Langdon offered a hopeful grin. "Maybe not. I think there's more there than meets the eye." He motioned down to the mask. "Remember how I told you that the back of the mask was lighter in color because of uneven aging?"
"I may have been wrong," he said. "The color difference seems too stark to be aging, and the texture of the back has teeth."
Langdon showed her that the texture on the back was far rougher than that of the front ... and also far grittier, like sandpaper. "In the art world, this rough texture is called teeth, and painters prefer to paint on a surface that has teeth because the paint sticks to it better."
"I'm not following."
Langdon smiled. "Do you know what gesso is?"
"Sure, painters use it to prime canvases and-" She stopped short, his meaning apparently registering.
"Exactly," Langdon said. "They use gesso to create a clean white toothy surface, and sometimes to cover up unwanted paintings if they want to reuse a canvas."
Now Sienna looked excited. "And you think maybe Zobrist covered the back of the death mask with gesso?"
"It would explain the teeth and the lighter color. It also might explain why he would want us to wipe off the seven Ps."
Sienna looked puzzled by this last point.
"Smell this," Langdon said, raising the mask to her face like a priest offering Communion.
Sienna cringed. "Gesso smells like a wet dog?"
"Not all gesso. Regular gesso smells like chalk. Wet dog is acrylic gesso."
"Meaning it's water soluble."
Sienna cocked her head, and Langdon could sense the wheels turning. She shifted her gaze slowly to the mask and then suddenly back to Langdon, her eyes wide. "You think there's something under the gesso?"
"It would explain a lot."
Sienna immediately gripped the hexagonal wooden font covering and rotated it partway off, exposing the water below. She grabbed a fresh linen towel and plunged it into the baptismal water. Then she held out the dripping cloth for Langdon. "You should do it."
Langdon placed the mask facedown in his left palm and took the wet linen. Shaking out the excess water, he began dabbing the damp cloth on the inside of Dante's forehead, moistening the area with the seven calligraphic Ps. After several dabs with his index finger, he redipped the cloth in the font and continued. The black ink began smearing.
"The gesso is dissolving," he said excitedly. "The ink is coming off with it."
As he performed the process a third time, Langdon began speaking in a pious and somber monotone, which resonated in the baptistry. "Through baptism, the Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin and brought you to new life through water and the Holy Spirit."
Sienna stared at Langdon like he'd lost his mind.
He shrugged. "It seemed appropriate."
She rolled her eyes and turned back to the mask. As Langdon continued applying water, the original plaster beneath the gesso became visible, its yellowish hue more in keeping with what Langdon would have expected from an artifact this old. When the last of the Ps had disappeared, he dried the area with a clean linen and held the mask up for Sienna to observe.
She gasped out loud.
Precisely as Langdon had anticipated, there was indeed something hidden beneath the gesso-a second layer of calligraphy-nine letters written directly onto the pale yellow surface of the original plaster.
This time, however, the letters formed a word.