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Legends of the Madonna - The Marriage at Cana in Galilee

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Nozze di Cana. Fr. Les Noces de Cana. Ger. Die Hochzeit zu Cana.

After his temptation and baptism, the first manifestation of the divine mission and miraculous power of Jesus was at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee ; and those who had devoted themselves to the especial glorification of the Virgin-mother did not forget that it was at her request this first miracle was accomplished ; that out of her tender and sympathetic commiseration for the apparent want arose her appeal to him not, indeed, as requiring anything from him, but looking to him with habitual dependence on his goodness and power. She simply said, " They have no wine ! " He replied, " Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come." The term woman, thus used, sounds harsh to us ; but in the original is a term of respect. Nor did Jesus intend any denial to the mother whom he regarded with dutiful and pious reverence : it was merely an intimation that he was not yet entered into the period of miraculous power. He anticipated it, how-ever, for her sake, and because of her request. Such is the view taken of this beautiful and dramatic incident by the early theologians ; and in the same spirit it has been interpreted by the painters.

The Marriage at Cana appears very seldom in the ancient representations taken from the Gospel. All the monkish institutions then prevalent discredited marriage ; and it is clear that this distant consecration of the rite by the presence of the Saviour and his Mother did not find favor with the early patrons of Art.

There is an old Greek tradition, that the Marriage at Cana was that of John the Evangelist. In the thirteenth century, when the passionate enthusiasm for Mary Magdalene was at its height, it was a popular article of belief that the Marriage which Jesus graced with his presence was that of John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene ; and that immediately after the wedding feast, St. John and Mary, devoting themselves to an austere and chaste religious life, followed Christ, and ministered to him.

As a scene in the life of Christ, the Marriage at Cana is of course introduced incidentally ; but even here, such were the monastic principles and prejudices, that I find it difficult to point out any very early example. In the " Manual of Greek Art," published by Didron, the rules for the. representation are thus laid down : " A table, around it Scribes and Pharisees ; one holds up a cup of wine, and seems astonished. In the midst the bride and bridegroom are seated together. The bridegroom is to have ' gray hair and a round beard' (cheveux gris et barbe arrondie) ; both are to be crowned with flowers ; behind them, a servitor. Christ, the Virgin, and Joseph, are to be on one side, and on the other are six jars; the attendants are in the act of filling them with water from leathern buckets."

The introduction of Joseph is quite peculiar to Greek Art ; and the more curious, that in the list of Greek subjects there is not one from his life, or in which he is a conspicuous figure. On the other hand, the astonished " ruler of the feast " ( the Architriclino), so dramatic, and so necessary to the comprehension of the scene, is scarcely ever omitted. The Apostles whom we may imagine to be present are Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

As a separate subject, the Marriage at Cana first became popular in the Venetian school, and thence extended to the Lombard and German schools of the same period, that is, about the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The most beautiful representation I have ever seen is a fresco, by Luini, in the church of San Maurizio, at Milan. It belongs to a convent of nuns ; and I imagine, from its introduction there, that it had a mystic signification, and referred to a divine Sposalhio. In this sense the treatment is perfect. There are just the number of figures necessary to tell the story, and no more. It is the bride who is here the conspicuous figure, seated in the centre, arrayed in spotless white, and represented as a nun about to make her profession ; for this is evidently the intended signification. The bridegroom is at her side, and near to the spectator. Christ and the Virgin are seated together, and appear to be conversing. A man presents a cup of wine.

Including guests and attendants, there are only twelve figures. The only fault of this exquisite and graceful composition is the introduction of a cat and dog in front ; we feel that they ought to have been omitted, as giving occasion for irreverent witticisms. This beautiful fresco, which is seldom seen, being behind the altar, was in a very ruined condition when I saw it last, in 1855.

In contrast with this picture, and as a gorgeous specimen of the Venetian style of treatment, we may turn to [Veronese's] " Marriage at Cana " in the Louvre, originally painted to cover one side of the refectory of the convent of San Giorgio Maggiore at Venice, whence it was carried off by the French in 1796. This immense picture is about thirty-six feet in length, and about twenty feet in height, and contains more than a hundred figures above life size. In the centre Christ is seated, and beside him the Virgin-mother. Both heads are merely commonplace, and probably portraits, like those of the other personages at the extremity of the table. On the left are seated the bride and bridegroom. In the foreground a company of musicians are performing a concert; behind the table is a balustrade, where are seen numerous servants occupied in cutting up the viands and serving dishes, with attend-ants and spectators. The chief action to be represented, the astonishing miracle performed by him at whose command " the fountain blushed into wine," is here quite a secondary matter ; and the value of the picture lies in its magnitude and variety as a composition, and the portraits of the historical characters and remarkable personages introduced Francis I., his queen, Eleanora of Austria, Charles V., and others. In the group of musicians in front we recognize Titian and Tintoretto, old Bassano, and Paolo himself.

The Marriage at Cana, as a refectory subject, had been unknown till this time ; it became popular, and Paolo [Veronese] afterwards repeated it several times. The most beautiful of all, to my feeling, is that in the Dresden Gallery, where the " ruler of the feast," holding up the glass of wine with admiration, seems to exclaim, " Thou hast kept the good wine until now." In another, which is at Milan, the Virgin turns round to the attendant, and desires him to obey her Son, " Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it ! "

As the Marriage at Cana belongs, as a subject, rather to the history of Christ than to that of the Virgin his Mother, I - shall not enter into it further here, but proceed.



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