This masterpiece by Veronese has perhaps the worse location in the Louvre: it hangs opposite the Mona Lisa. Yet this huge, delightful canvas with its brilliant colour and merry atmosphere can still entice spectators away from the most famous painting in the world; a bit like a particularly good party next door. John Ruskin once wrote that from Veronese’s art he learned that, ‘to be a first rate-painter, you mustn’t be pious – but rather a little wicked and entirely a man of the world’. And indeed no matter the subject, Veronese’s paintings always exude the worldly, festive atmosphere of 16th-century Venice.
This celebratory scene was commissioned by the Benedictine monks of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to hang in their new refectory designed by Andrea Palladio. Veronese’s contract stipulated that he produce a wedding feast large enough to fill an entire wall of the refectory. It took Veronese, most likely working with his brother, Benedetto Caliari, 15 months to finish the massive 70m² canvas.
The scene depicts Christ’s first miracle, when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana, though the subject is not immediately evident to the viewer who must look for the biblical story within a bustling banquet scene. According to the story as told in St John’s Gospel, as the wine ran low, Christ asked the servants to fill stone jars with water (here, depicted in the right foreground) and offer them to the master of the house (sitting in the left foreground) who discovers that the water has been turned to wine. This story is a precursor to the Eucharist, which is also bluntly referred to by the servant butchering a lamb in the upper register just above Christ, who sits next to the Virgin at the centre of the large banquet table.
Veronese freely mixes the sacred and the profane, the biblical and the contemporary. The Holy pair, identified by luminous auras, are surrounded by no less than 130 figures, some in biblical dress, others looking as if they had just walked in from Piazza San Marco. The bride and bridegroom, wearing lavish contemporary Venetian dress, are seated at opposite ends of the table while Christ’s disciples sit beside him in biblical-era robes. Other guests include sumptuously dressed Venetian nobles and exotically dressed foreigners, which would have been a common sight in cosmopolitan Venice. There are also hard-working Venetian servants, jesters, dwarfs and even animated birds, cats and dogs. And according to 18th-century legend, the musicians in the centre foreground are none other than Veronese (in white with a viola da gamba) next to his contemporary painters, Titian and Bassano, as well as the poet and author, Pietro Aretino, who stands next to them examining a glass of wine.
Veronese mixes the spiritual and everyday. Contemporary tableware is set before the guests, who will be served the meat being prepared by the servants, which can be considered as a metaphor for Holy Communion when the body and blood of Christ are symbolically consumed by the faithful. However, dessert is more prosaic: quinces, a symbol of marriage.
Veronese’s lush, vivacious style would at first seem inappropriate for such a pious subject: his luminous colour is designed to delight the eye and his supple, sensuous fabrics suggest the body beneath. Yet the scene – and indeed all Veronese’s work - is underlined by a subtle intelligence and rigour that lifts his paintings high above mere decorativeness. It is a complex and masterful composition, typical of Veronese. Influenced by Palladio and contemporary theatre design, the characters are arranged as if on a two-tiered stage of monumental, classical architecture and interact like actors with theatrical gestures and gazes.
All this imaginative grandeur swirls around a single miracle. With this image Veronese achieves a delicate balance between worldliness and piety, placing the Son of God amidst the fashionable sophistication of Venetian society. The multilayered appeal of this masterpiece did not diminish with age: in 1797 Napoleon thought so highly of it he had his troops roll up the canvas and transport it to Paris. It entered the Louvre collection soon after, where it inspired artists like Delacroix and the poet Baudelaire who wrote of Veronese’s ‘heavenly, afternoon colours’
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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