Sunday, January 10, 2016

John 2.1-11: Wedding Dinner...Chicken or Beef

Neither, actually. But we'll get to that. It is the miracle of changing water to wine that manifests Jesus as the Christ in the gospel reading of Epiphany 2C  (John 2:1-11). That is usually where consideration of the story ends. Perhaps a question is raised about the role of Mary, Jesus' mother in the story. But mostly, it's the water and the wine.

It's a hard moment to capture in a single painting.

Most depictions of this gospel passage tell us more about the wedding practices of the artist's time than they do about the scripture. If you do an image search for "wedding at Cana" or "marriage feast at Cana", you will see scenes with musicians (or not), long tables (or not), happy brides and grooms (or not). There will usually be a servant pouring liquid from one container to another or Jesus pointing to the jars to be filled with water. Jesus and Mary are often shown in "Biblical" clothes while the other guests are depicted in the fashion of the artist's day.

Italian painter Paolo Veronese created two versions of this story. The largest was created originally for the refectory of the Benedictine monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Today, courtesy of Napoleon's troops, that work is in the collection of the Louvre in Paris. The size of the work allowed the artist to include details and subplots and references that can be lost in the mix of people. More than 125 guests attend the wedding feast. And on the table is...dessert.
Paolo Veronese. The Marriage Feast at Cana. 1563. 21' x 32.5'. Paris: Musee du Louvre.
The feast has progressed to dessert, and the lack of wine has been noted and addressed by Jesus, who occupies the center of the composition with his mother sitting on his right. The meal steward dressed in green stands to the left of the musicians and is balanced visually by the wine steward, in white brocade, who examines the wine in what is no doubt a Venetian glass. On plates before the guests are dates, grapes, quince and candied fruits. Contemporary dining theory advocated ending a meal with fruit and nuts, accompanied by a glass of wine to "seal the stomach". Soon the guests will offer a final toast (with excellent wine) to the happy couple (shown in the detail below, left) and leave the sumptuous banquet. 

Why, then, is the carver still busy? The meat courses have been served and cleared, but the cleaver is raised as the servant still works. Why?
The carver is, in fact, chopping lamb. He stands directly above Jesus, and serves as a reminder that this is not the only feast at which Jesus will be present. At the Last Supper, Jesus will again sit at a table. And in addition to his role as a worker of miracles, Jesus also has the role of the Lamb of God. It's a solemn reminder. Mary was anxious for her boy to be helpful, to shine here at this feast. But claiming his identity marks a significant step on the road that leads to Jerusalem.

The wedding at Cana in the style of Japanese prints? Absolutely! You can get to the artist's website via the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link.

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