The Wedding at Cana: The Iconography
JESUS CHANGES WATER INTO WINE
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 Commons 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 2:1-11 (at right) 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 usually Jesus points to them with what Schiller (163) calls "the thaumaturgical staff…of ancient art," as in the picture at right. Later images will have larger jugs and will replace the staff 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). These reliefs do not usually include Mary, but she does appear in the first millenium in other media (example).

As early as the 6th century, images will relate the Cana miracle to the Eucharist. In this manuscript illustration) the jars are pictured as little chalices. In another from the 12th (Schiller, Pl. 474) Jesus sits in the center of a table blessing four loaves and two chalices. This painting by Paolo Veronese from 1563 also places him at the center of a grand table flanked by his disciples.

In the first millenium it is rare for the nuptial couple to be included in Cana images. But thereafter it becomes more common. In Giotto's fresco of the event, for example, the groom is the central figure, with the bride at his right and the Virgin Mary at his left. This change may be related to the tradition of seeing Cana as affirming the sanctity of marriage. The 13th-century Catena Aurea quotes 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).

For Schiller, Giotto's bridegroom is "depicted as the type of John the Baptist." In fact there was a current of belief in the 14th century that John and Mary Magdalene were the nuptial couple. In the Pomposa frescos of the mid-14th, for example, the bride and groom wear halos and the groom has the same smooth face and "page boy" haircut that John has in the Pomposa crucifixion and Last Supper panels. This notion had been mentioned in the Historia Scholastica in the 12th century and was popularized in the 14th by Johannes de Caulibus's Meditations on the Life of Christ, which also claimed support from St. Jerome. In 1570 Molanus severely condemned this way of picturing the couple, arguing at length for John's status as a lifelong virgin.1

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-02-01, 2020-11-12.

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SHOWN ABOVE
Detail from Wilhelm Borremans, The Miracle at Cana, 1717.

OTHER IMAGES

Detail from a Roman sarcophagus, circa 300-325 Both Jesus and the steward hold scrolls signifying their authority. A further symbol of Jesus' authority is the "thaumaturgical staff" in his right hand. (See the description page.)

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.

CANA IN 4th-CENTURY SARCOPHAGI

OTHER IMAGES

  • 6th century: Mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
  • 9th century: The Cana fresco at St. John's, Müstair, sets a contemporary priest in Mass vestments at Jesus' side, emphasizing the Eu­cha­ris­tic significance of the miracle.
  • 1512-31: Relief sculpture in the main retable at Oviedo Cathedral, with the marital couple sitting next to Jesus and Mary.
  • 19th century: Rotermund, The Miracle of Cana, 1895.

NOTES

1 Schiller (I, 164) notes that Bosch also depicted the bridegroom "as the type of John the Apostle." See Molanus, IV, xx (p. 510) and Joannes de Caulibus, xx (p. 140). The relevant section of the Historia Scholastica is most conveniently accessed at its Vikifons page. Search on the subtitle De mutatione aquae in vinum.

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