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The Wedding at Cana

The Wedding at Cana

Paolo Caliari called Veronese (1528-1588). Musée du Louvre- Paris. 1562-1563.

John wrote that the wedding at Cana was the first miracle of Jesus. He is the only Evangelist to tell this story. John witnessed that this was on the third day of Jesus’ public life and his story goes as follows.

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. The mother of Jesus was there and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. And they ran out of wine since the wine provided for the feast had all been used and the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine”. Jesus said “Woman, what do you want from me? My hour has not come yet.” His mother said to the servants, “ Do whatever he tells you.” There were six stone water jars standing there, meant for the ablutions that were customary among the Jews; each could hold twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water” and they filled them to the brim. Then he said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the president of the feast.” They did this; the president tasted the water, and it had turned into wine. Having no idea where it came from – though the servants who had drawn the water knew – the president of the feast called the bridegroom and said, “Everyone serves good wine first and the worse wine when the guests are well wined, but you have kept the best wine till now.” This was the first of Jesus’ signs; it was at Cana in Galilee. He revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. G38

John’s text reveals much. It reveals in the last phrase why miracles were necessary. Jesus had to prove that he was the Son of God. The miracle at Cana was the first and by far the nicest. What could be more sympathetic to us, modern sybarites, than the transformation of water into wine? The miracle was also performed at a feast, placing Jesus amidst life among his neighbours or people who knew him well.

Paolo Caliari was born in Verona in 1528. He was trained in the arts there, but he worked from around 1555 in Venice and died in this town in 1588. Art in Venice was in its High Renaissance period then, at the height and almost at the end of its glory. Living masters were Titian (1487-1576), Paris Bordone (1500-1571), Palma Giovane (1544-1628), Sebastiano del Piombo (1485- 1547) who had left Venice for Rome from 1511 on and Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1518-1594). Jacopo di Ponte (1517-1592) worked in Bassano but had been taught the art of painting in Venice. Titian was the settled and recognised great master of the arts. He was the painter of Kings and Emperors. This fact left the town of Venice itself more to Tintoretto and Veronese. These two were in competition for the altarpieces in the churches of Venice, for decorations in the various Scuole and in the Doge Palace, the Palazzo Ducale. They worked in very different styles. Tintoretto was dedicated to drama and to preponderance of colour in the best tradition of Venice. Veronese preferred clearer forms, well-delineated areas of brighter colours, and he loved to use elements of classical architecture in his scenes.

Tintoretto and Veronese worked on grand scales, on paintings and frescoes of enormous dimensions. Tintoretto’s ‘Paradise’ on one of the walls of the Palazzo Ducale is the largest oil painting in the world G3 . Veronese’s ‘Wedding at Cana’ is almost 7 by 10 meter. In 1798 the French Revolutionary Armies had trampled over Italy in a rapid campaign. French Cultural Commissars took away the painting of Veronese from the refectory of the Benedictine convent on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore near Venice, a convent built by the famous Venetian architect Palladio. In 1815, when the allies who had beaten Napoleon discussed the redistribution of these confiscated works of art, the dimensions of the ‘Wedding at Cana’ were quite a problem. The Allies preferred the exchange of this canvas for one of the French artist Charles Le Brun. So the ‘Wedding’ remained in the Louvre and Le Brun’s painting travelled to Italy F1 .

The ‘Wedding at Cana’ was thus painted on a grand scale. Although the picture represents a religious scene, the grandeur of Venice is represented here so monumentally. Veronese has gone a long way towards treating his subject as if it were a worldly, a secular scene of a Venetian wedding. Of course, such an epic scene probably shows a very idealised form of Venetian life. The decorative effect of the painting is striking. The setting of the wedding in a Roman palace gives us an impression of solemnity where otherwise we would see only the tumult of a boisterous feast.

The picture is divided in three horizontal strips and is thus very solidly structured in order to enhance the monumentality of the picture.

The lower strip contains the table of the wedding. Here is the crowd, all in movement and gestures, oblivious of the viewer. A small orchestra is playing a concert in the middle. One can hear the sounds of the music over the whispering and laughter. People are asking for their favourite tunes. This is not an ordinary orchestra however. For one, it is situated exactly in front of Jesus. The musicians are from the left to the right Paolo Veronese himself with a tenor viol, Jacopo Bassano with the treble cornett, Tintoretto with the violin and Titian with the bass viol G57 . A heavenly orchestra of painters is thus seated close to Jesus and is entertaining him. Other figures are standing up and are walking all through the picture. They are talking to each other, calling for waiters, they are being served, they watch the wine being poured, and so on. They brought their dogs along. Admire the marvellous robes of the invited Venetians. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table and he is only recognisable by the halo or radiation that emanates from his face. His mother, Mary is at the left of him. Around these two are probably the apostles, all engaged in vivid conversations. Jesus remains stoically calm, as if he were isolated and in sole conference with God to perform the miracle of the transformation of the water in wine.

The miracle has already been performed. On the right of the frame we see wine being poured from the white stone jars and the wine is presented to the President of the feast. He holds a glass high to admire the colour of the liquid and the sitters around him look appreciatingly. The entire scene at that side of the table is very vivid. On the other side, to the extreme left, we see the married couple. There is symmetry in colours since the President and the bride are both painted in grey-white splendid robes. Wine here is also being served, to the bridegroom, and by a black young servant. Two invitees are looking at this scene and so are two invitees on the right. Veronese has thus introduced symmetries in colour and symmetries in the narration. For the rest, all the bustle of a feast is wonderfully displayed as a feast to the eye. Forms and colours are a splendid harmony. Veronese was even more a colourist than Tintoretto, but he vowed to Florentine lines and clear forms in a happy combination.

The colour strip above the table shows the same intense life. From the left and from the right, from between the columns of the palace, meat is brought in. Whole porks and fowl are presented on plates. In the middle the meat is chopped up and brought down the large marble stairs. This is a feast in Venice, the town in which accounting was invented. So on the left accounts are held of all that is served at the feast. A scribe is there, with two acolytes and conversation, control and ordering is very animated. The horizontality of the scene is enhanced in this strip by the railing of the platform that overhangs the lower scene. This railing was a splendid idea for the picture; it adds space, clarity of vision and invites the viewer to look at the scenes one after the other. It delineates also the action since in the lower strip all is crowded and confused. In the middle band more order is shown whereas the upper band contains the Roman classical rationality. The viewer is reminded that although Venice was all energy, imperial order also reigned the town. There is a definite top-to-bottom feeling in this picture. Order comes from above. Popular life is below. Industry, administration and accountants in the middle and the aristocratic upper construction of Venetian society is magnificently present.

The third strip of the picture shows a wonderful Venetian sky, full of light. The light pervades the impeccable white marble columns. This could be imperial Rome. Veronese must have loved his Venice, have been proud of its wealth and accomplishments. The palace is even adorned, high above, with classical sculpture. A bell tower rises out of the scene as a token of the independence and privileges of the town. But the airiness had to be preserved so that one can see through the floors of the tower and the construction is held very light. Even here, Veronese added life: flocks of birds fly around the tower.

The ‘Wedding at Cana’ of Paolo Veronese proves the success of Christian religious painting. In the Gospels all themes could be found that could be handled with vivid imagination almost to any effect. There are many anecdotes in the Gospels, scenes of joy, scenes of solitude, of passion and of grand images, scenes of interior and scenes of wide nature. Solemn and stately occasions can be depicted as well as popular feasts. The Gospels permit endless variations on themes so that painters had all the freedom they could imagine composing their works of art. The themes were not exhausted at the end of the seventeenth century. Paolo Veronese wanted to show the grandeur of Venice in his marvellous decorations. Venice was all the wonderful light of its lagoons. It was a boisterous town where all the cultures of the Mediterranean came together, collided and collaborated. This is why various references are made in the picture to oriental fashion in the turban hats of the invitees, in the Moors and Negro servants. Veronese has assembled this cultural splendour and wealth in his painting. All in this picture is movement, gesture, talks, whispers, and of course colour. Colour was Venice’s own in art. Veronese combined his feeling of colour with the clearer forms of Florence. But there is no rational restraint here, in contrast with the rationally ordered pictures of Florence. Veronese was too much a painter of the senses, as most Venetians were.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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