Murillo’s Marriage of Cana

Murillo shows more than twenty guests reacting to the news that the wine has run out.

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.


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8 Responses to Murillo’s Marriage of Cana

  1. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    This is an interesting painting. What strikes me first, there’s a sharp contrast between the foreground and background. It’s almost as two different persons painted it. The servants in the foreground are alive, dynamic, real, while Jesus and the guests are static, theatrical, almost lifeless. You can tell he loved painting common people more, so he sneaked them into his commissioned works. :)

  2. 100swallows says:

    Erika: I don’t get you. How do theatrical and lifeless go together? I don’t see anyone as static. Do you mean the bride’s dad, who is burying his eyes in the table? Or Mary, who is watching and listening? I’d say everyone front and back is showing some reaction clearly even if he isn’t throwing wild gestures around like Latins. It’s true there is a feeling of separation from the table and the crowd so that the foreground becomes a sort of off-stage. You can almost hear Jesus talking with those servants.

  3. rich says:

    Have not seen this painting before.
    Still have not found out my favourite depiction of Jesus – this one goes into the collection. There’s one by Tizian also…do you have a favourite Christ?

    As far as I remember, Cezanne would have liked to paint him – but he didn’t dare yet, he said…

  4. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, it’s your image. I saw better quality but rather small pictures of this painting on the web. Your image is faded in the background, maybe that’s why I got the static impression. I still believe the servants are more alive.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Your question surprised me. I don’t have a favorite picture of Jesus. He has been portrayed in so many ways: as a sufferer, a king, a gentle friend, a soldier, an ideal human figure (Velazquez’s Crucifixion), an angry rebel (Greco’s Christ Driving the Money-Changers From the Temple), a sort of salesman (Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World), a wizard who stares right at you with a penetrating glance, and so on. I remember an odd series of studies for a Christ by Rembrandt that gave you no clue as to how to understand the model. Of course out of reverence painters have always made him well-proportioned, agreeable to look at. No one dares to make an imagined prophet who is short and irregular in his features, as the real Jesus might well have been.
    I don’t know anything about Cezanne’s desire to paint Him. It’s true– Titian has some great Christ faces.

  6. rich says:

    My question seems a bit rash to me, in hindsight; considering the “bandwidth” of your answer, Swallows.
    A truly impressive array you’ve presented. I might add Vermeer’s Christ and the nameless portrait on that Torino cloth.

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