Our Current Picture

After Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), ‘Marriage Feast at Cana’, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam


The Second Sunday of Epiphany

‘Marriage Feast at Cana’ is a charming oil painting that captures local Brabant life and was for a long time attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam hold this original artwork alongside several other artworks that remain more confidently attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. A wedding-feast by or after Bosch belonged to the Rubens collection in Antwerp. It has now been marked as ‘After Hieronymus Bosch’ which is a term used to signify that his may well have come from members of his studio.  The original picture has apparently been lost. As well as the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam there are also two other versions at the Abdij O.-L.-Vrouwe, Tongerlo, Belgium, and the Louvre in Paris. The Marriage Feast at Cana was painted towards the end of Bosch’s early period. The picture is not in good condition; the upper corners have been cut off, many heads have been repainted, and a pair of dogs at the lower left may have been added as late as the eighteenth century.

The marriage banquet has been placed in a richly furnished interior, most probably a tavern. The miracle of the wine jars takes place at lower right; the guests are seated around an L-shaped table dominated at one end by the figure of Christ, behind whom hangs the brocaded cloth of honour usually reserved for the bride; he is flanked by two male donors in contemporary dress. Next to the Virgin at the centre of the table appear the solemn, austerely clad bridal couple; the bridegroom must be John the Evangelist, for his face closely resembles the type which Bosch employed elsewhere for this saint. Although the bridegroom remains nameless in the New Testament account, he was frequently identified as Christ’s most beloved disciple. Christ and his friends are pensively absorbed in some inner vision, unaware of the evil enchantment which seems to have fallen upon the banquet hall. The other wedding guests drink or gossip, watched by the bagpiper who leers drunkenly from a platform at the upper left. On the columns flanking the rear portal, two sculptured demons have mysteriously come to life; one aims an arrow at the other who escapes by disappearing through a hole in the wall. From the left, two servants carry in a boar’s head and a swan spitting fire from their mouths; an ancient emblem of Venus, the swan symbolized unchastity. This unholy revelry seems to be directed by the innkeeper or steward, dressed in white, who stands with his baton in the rear chamber. On the sideboard next to him are displayed curiously formed vessels, some of which, like the pelican, are symbolic of Christ, while others possess less respectable connotations, such as the three naked dancers on the second shelf. The precise meaning of all these details remains unclear, as does that of the richly gowned child, his back turned to the viewer, who seems to toast the bridal couple with a chalice. However this may be, Bosch has undoubtedly employed the tavern setting as an image of evil, a comparison popular in medieval sermons, thereby contrasting the chaste marriage feast at Cana with the debauchery of the world.

In its transformation of a biblical story, the Marriage Feast of Cana introduces us for the first time to the complexity of Bosch’s thought. It presents, on the one hand, a moral allegory of man’s pursuit of the flesh at the expense of his spiritual welfare, and on the other, the monastic ideal of a life secure from the world in contemplation of God. These two themes were to dominate almost all Bosch’s later art. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most famous artist from Brabant for capturing the lives of ordinary folk and would often make use of local gatherings such as weddings. In terms of content, if not style, you can see clear similarities between ‘Marriage Feast at Cana’ and Bruegel’s paintings such as ‘Peasant Wedding’,Peasant Dance’ and ‘Wedding Dance’.

John 2.1-11 The Wedding at Cana

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So, they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

A Commentary on St John’s Gospel by Augustine

The miracle wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ at Cana in Galilee in which he turned water into wine, is not marvellous to those who know that God did it. For he who made wine that day at the marriage feast in the six stone water-jars which he had ordered to be filled to the brim with water, performs the same miracle each year in vines. Just as what the servants had put into the water-jars was changed into wine by the agency of the Lord, so what the clouds pour forth is changed into wine by the agency of the same Lord. We do not marvel at this, simply because it happens each year; familiarity has dulled our capacity for wonder. But it should demand of us a more profound consideration than something which once happened in some water-jars. Is there anyone who, contemplating the works of God by which the entire universe is governed and ordered, is not amazed and overwhelmed by a sense of the miraculous? The power and strength of a single grain of seed is itself an amazing thing, inspiring awe in its contemplation. But humanity, preoccupied with its own petty agenda, has lost the capacity to contemplate the works of God by which it should daily render praise to God as Creator.

This is why God has, as it were, reserved to himself certain extraordinary and unexpected actions, in order that by such marvels he might startle people out of their lethargy into worship. A dead man rose again; people marvelled. By contrast, numerous babies are born every day, and no one marvels. If only we would reflect upon life more carefully, we would come to see that it is a greater miracle for a child to be given existence who before did not exist, than for a man to come back to life who already existed. People hold cheap what they see every day of their lives, but suddenly, confronted by extraordinary events, they are dumbfounded, though these events are truly no more wonderful than the others. Governing the universe, for example, is a greater miracle than feeding five thousand people with loaves of bread, but no one marvels at it. People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand not because this miracle is greater, but because it is out of the ordinary. Who is even now providing nourishment for the whole world if not the God who creates a field of wheat from a few seeds?

Miracles are presented to our senses in order to stimulate our minds. They are put before our eyes in order to engage our understanding and so make us marvel at the God we do not see through his works which we do see. For then, when we have been raised to the level of faith and purified by faith, we desire to behold, though not with our eyes, the unseen God whom we have recognised through what is seen.

Augustine, ‘Commentary on St John’s Gospel’, 8, 1:24, 1, CCSL 36, pp 81-2, 244