Artists have often illustrated Bible stories as if they were happening in the artist’s own time.
Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana is a sumptuous Venetian feast.
The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese (669 x 990cm.), in the Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)
Everyone knows that the Renaissance was a worldly time and that Venice was a kind of Gomorrah. But how could the Benedictine monks have hung this painting on the wall of their refectory? It is a sort of apologia of wealth and vanity.
But so they did. Veronese finished it in 1563 and sent it to the prior of the Venetian monastery of St. George the Greater, who seems to have been delighted. He must have spent his dinners trying to identify the people in the picture, since many were portraits of his famous contemporaries.
A Very Discreet Miracle Worker
Jesus and Mary, though the stars of the Bible story, are remarkably unattractive here.
They look like poor country cousins who were not told to dress up for the banquet. St. John says that when Mary saw that the groom was embarrassed because his wine had run out, she felt pity and asked her Son to do something. But in these circumstances it is hard to imagine that Mary would be moved. It serves the groom right. Pretension like this deserved a good box in the ears.
“I’ll Paint You a REAL Banquet!”
Of course all Veronese could think of when he painted the picture was a feast, a magnificent feast, the Mother of All Banquets, and he outdid himself in details of elegance and finery. Those he loved—he left spirituality to the friars. He also loved the caprices of wealth, such as monkeys and parrots and buffoons and courtesans and music. In fact he loved all of life and he’d have put it all in the painting if there was room. As it is, even the ten-meter canvas is crowded.
Where’s the Inquisition?
The Inquisition looked the other way this time; but ten years later, when Veronese painted another huge feast, with buffoons and courtesans, and called it The Last Supper, it put its foot down. Read that story.
But As a Picture…
Critics with a mean stick have objected to the perspective of the work—or rather, to its having more than one point of view. According to the laws of linear perspective the objects of a picture ought to be arranged along lines that lead to a single vanishing point. Veronese, to broaden his scope, wiggled out of that requirement. Those critics also complain about a lack of organic unity in the picture: Veronese fails to bring the foreground and middleground together gracefully. But for such a tour de force criticism like that just seems like nitpicking.
The painting is now in the Louvre of Paris. Napoleon brought it to France as war booty.
Anybody We Know?
A seventeenth-century critic (Zanetti) identified some of the famous Venetians or other Renaissance celebrities shown in the huge painting.
Paolo Veronese himself is the lute-player dressed in white.
He is conferring with his friend, in a green jacket, another great Venetian painter, Jacopo Tintoretto, who plays second lute.
The bass player is the great Titian, in blazing crimson.
The groom–the first man seated, with a black beard–is Don Alfonso Dávalos; and the illustrious lady sitting a little farther along the table, cleaning her teeth, is his wife, Vittoria Colonna. She became Michelangelo’s friend after her husband died.
The bride is the wife of King Francis I of France. Sitting beside her, in such strange blue attire, is the King himself.
The standing figure who holds a drinking glass with such elegance is Paolo’s brother Benedetto. He helped Paolo paint this picture.
Some Great Details
Don’t miss the dog looking out through the bannister at the top left; and another doggie walking the table on the right; the midget buffoon with a parrot behind the host’s table; the cat rolling on the floor beside the stone jar on the right; the men gazing up at the beautiful woman who leans out above them on the right.