(This has been posted after the Sunday )
The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday (C) is from the Gospel of John and recalls the Marriage at Cana from the beginning of Christ’s ministry, where ‘he let his glory be seen’ (John 2:1-11). Actually, while in the Eastern churches the Epiphany is strictly speaking the term given to the Baptism of the Lord, in the Western church, three different moments, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism and Cana make up the celebration of Epiphany. They are all moments when God’s glory is revealed. This is one reason that on the second Sunday year C we celebrate this moment. Another reason is that it is an opportunity to hear part of the opening two chapters of John (now read on 2nd Sunday over the three year cycle), which give a vision of the new creation being brought about by the Incarnation.
The scene of a feast at Cana lends itself to the context of a wall painting in a refectory, though the standard subject had been the Last Supper, perfected by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan sixty years before. Paolo Veronese executed a number of refectory paintings in the 1560s and 70s of different feasts from the Gospel accounts, beginning with this one of the Marriage at Cana in the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. He continued with three versions of the Feast in the House of Simon, for monasteries and a priory in Verona and Venice between 1556 and 1572, now in the Brera, Milan, Turin, and at Versailles, and a Feast in the House of Levi for the Dominican priory of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, now in the Accademia. This final one began as a Last Supper but Veronese was brought before a delegation of the Inquisition at Venice, and questioned regarding his treatment of the subject in the light of the new principles for painting emerging out of the Council of Trent. An account of the Inquistion proceedings draws attention to the sheer number of figures in Veronese’s painting and to German soldiers shown drinking wine and eating bread, which in the context of the institution of the Eucharist and in view of the Reformation, raised concern. Veronese changed the title of the painting, rather than make the alterations.
Veronese’s first refectory painting, the Marriage Feast at Cana has to be imagined or seen in its original setting, (a photograph now in the refectory allows one to see it thus) the newly rebuilt monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed in the grand style by the architect Palladio. With its prominent situation on the island visible across the lagoon from St Mark’s square, the impact of this white stucco classical façade, whose entrance is approached from steps rising out of the water and the light stucco interior, cannot be underestimated. Veronese’s painting was to complete Palladio’s refectory design in the same style. Seen in this context, rather than the cluttered space of the Louvre, where it now is, it is more easy to appreciate the vivid symphony of colours which make up the painting. It became one of the most visited sights in Venice over the coming two centuries, until it was removed by Napoleon.
However, looking at the scene of Veronese, notwithstanding the complementarity of the space as a foil for Veronese’s colourful masterpiece, it does seem strange that Veronese has painted the wedding feast at Cana as such a complex and exhuberant banquet for a monastic refectory, a place where monks are still working out their salvation, even though it is, at the same time, a place where a foretaste of the heavenly banquet can be experienced. This is one of the issues that strikes one about the painting, whether it has a religious sense fitting to the context and subject?
In a way, Veronese draws together the deeper link between the paschal Mystery, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, and a celebratory feast in the same way that John himself does in the Gospel passage. John’s account of the wedding at Cana records on Jesus lips the words: ‘My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:4) and he observes of Cana, that there Jesus ‘let his glory be seen’ (John 2:11) thus linking the scene in Cana with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, the pre-eminent time of glory, as John sees it, when Christ is finally revealed as king on the cross. Cana is also the only time in the gospel Jesus addresses his mother as ‘woman’, apart from the crucifixion further linking the two. John himself, then brings a feast and Christ’s passion together.
Veronese does this in a parallel way. Christ and Mary are presented iconically, and frontally, and their gaze arrests the viewer. At the same time, there is a drama unfolding in the busy scene of a the celebratory feast, with all its participants in which, at the same time, the servants realise a miracle that has taken place in the transformation of the water into wine. Their realisation is that of the viewer who is drawn to the still figures of Christ and Mary, whose glory is being revealed.
There are small details, too, and significant aspects. One of the carvers in the scene, positioned above Christ’s head has a knife raised above a lamb, which in turn lines up with an hourglass, according to David Rosand, surely a reference to the Passover of the Passion, and the line ‘My hour has not yet come’. Furthermore, no-one is represented as eating: they are conversing, listening, savouring and tasting, perhaps, meditating, enjoying each other’s company, others are preparing and serving food, playing music, attending to guests and to one another, but it is not a picture of people being satiated. In this way, the festive and communal aspect of the heavenly banquet are rendered while at the same time, all the arts of living are depicted here, as if artful living, of whatever form, is in itself a graced endeavour that prepares one for salvation. Kate Hanson in an article points out that there is artistry being depicted in the way the food is being served, and that just before this time, the culinary arts were being codified and recognised in the work of Platina, Scappi and Maestro Martino in publications in Venice,( as Vasari did the same for art). The musicians playing for the feast may be portraits the painters of Venice, with Veronese in white, and Tintoretto both playing the viola da braccio, Titian, playing the viola da gamba, and Bassano on flute, though this is contended more recently. However, whether these are portraits or not, they still depict the same artistry that Veronese’s painting is itself an example of, and in this way may be part of Veronese’s reflection on skill and artistry as a parallel to the grace-filled vocation of the monk, within a visually complex and engaging masterpiece.