The Wedding at Cana: The Iconography
This miracle has been favored in Christian art from the earliest times. In the 4th century it was depicted on many sarcophagi, and it was a common subject in medieval and Renaissance art. Even today, a Wikimedia search on "Wedding at Cana" at yields a dozen contemporary stained glass windows from the American Midwest alone.

The clearest sign that one is looking at a Wedding at Cana image is the water jugs. In John's Gospel, Mary tells Jesus the wine has run out, so he has the servants fill six large jugs with water, which then becomes wine. In the paleo-Christian sarcophagi, the jugs are always small and Jesus points to them with a sort of wand (example). Later images will have larger jugs and will replace the wand with a gesture, as in the picture above.

The sarcophagi often dramatize the chief steward's comments on the miracle by adding a figure who addresses Jesus (example). But they never represent Mary or the nuptial couple. This is also true in the few other Cana images I have seen from the first millenium. In the 6th-century mosaic at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo we see only Jesus, the steward, and a smaller figure of the servant. In the Cana panel of the 9th-century church frescos at Müstair, the other figures with Jesus are the chief steward and twelve disciples, all male.

In the second millenium, however, Cana images regularly feature Mary and the bride and groom. This starts as early as Giotto's 1305 fresco of the miracle in the Arena Chapel. We see it also in this Veronese from the 16th century, in the picture above from the 18th, and in this neo-Gothic example from the 19th.

The greater openness to portraying the bride and groom may be related to the tradition of seeing Cana as affirming the sanctity of marriage. The 13th-century Catena Aurea has Bede pitting Jesus' presence at the wedding against those "who detract from the honour of marriage. For if the undefiled bed, and the marriage celebrated with due chastity, partook at all of sin, our Lord would never have come to one" (IV, i, 79-80). The tradition remains explicit in the Catholic Church, whose Catechism declares, "the Church attaches great importance to Jesus' presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ's presence" (¶1613).

In these and the many other Cana images I have seen it is always Jesus who interacts with the servants, never Mary, even though the Gospel clearly states that "His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye." Apparently it has been thought unseemly for the Virgin to be talking to men.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-02-01.


SHOWN ABOVE Detail from Wilhelm Borremans, The Miracle at Cana

JOHN 2:1-11 — And the third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and his disciples, to the marriage. And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye. Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three measures apiece. Jesus saith to them: Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And Jesus saith to them: Draw out now, and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, and knew not whence it was, but the waiters knew who had drawn the water; the chief steward calleth the bridegroom, And saith to him: Every man at first setteth forth good wine, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. But thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee; and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.