The Marriage of Cana by Bartolomé Murillo (179cm X 235cm)
in the Barber Institute of Birmingham. Painted c. 1675 (museum page)
The story is from the New Testament (John, 2, 1-12). It is Christ’s first miracle.
He is at a wedding banquet with his mother. When she sees that the hosts have run out of wine she feels sorry for them and asks her Son to do something to help. He tells the servants to fill the empty jars with water, then draw some out and take it to the steward and have him taste it. Meanwhile the water has become wine. “Excellent!” says the steward, who is ignorant of its origin. And he tells the bridegroom: “You have saved the best wine till last.”
(Murillo supposes, as we would in America today, that it was the bride’s father who organized and paid for the wedding banquet, so he and his family are the ones who suffered the humiliation, not the groom.)
Here in Murillo’s picture the news that there is no more wine has shot around the table and reached almost everyone.
Some waiters sneak a look to see what is going to happen.
The bride is ashamed, her father humiliated. Her mother looks away: if she could she would fly away.
The groom suffers to see his new bride embarrassed. His father confers with a servant: perhaps he is discreetly offering wine. He looks wealthier than the bride’s folks.
The head waiter shows doubt at Christ’s order to fill the beautiful clay vessels with water; the little black servant (or slave—the difference was often small) waits for his boss to confirm the order.
A concerned Mary watches her Son.
A doggie thinks Jesus is about to throw him some food.
The painting is full of other curious and beautiful details, such as the wedding cake, the great platter the servant in the background lifts over everyone’s head, the tablecloth with a Chinese pheasant.
The architecture and the exotic costumes are reminiscent of the pictures of Veronese. Like his Venice of a century before, Seville was one of the great ports of the world, with ships bringing in rich and exotic goods from all parts of the world. Veronese’s giant picture of this same wedding now in the Louvre shows the splendor of a great Renaissance feast, with more than a hundred guests and servants; but it is no good illustration of the Bible story. Murillo depicts a more modest and intimate gathering and brings the guests together by showing the behavior of each one at the moment of greatest tension in the drama.