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Giotto’s painting, The Wedding Feast at Cana, portrays the literal and spiritual senses of this story. From John 2:1-11, we have the story that is the basis for the painting. Its details are conveyed in a simple, straightforward way. At the table from which the bride and groom face their roomful of guests sit, among others, Jesus (signified by the cross-marked gold halo) and his mother, Mary (signified by her blue robe and gold halo). Mary has turned toward the servants who attend the wine jars. This would seem to be the moment when she says to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Obligingly, the servant girl on the right fills the jars with water per Jesus’ instructions (John 2:7: “Fill the jars with water…”). The steward tastes red wine (“…the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine…” John 2:9). The servant beside him, clutching at his arm, is, perhaps, eager to try for himself a bit of the wine he hears praised by his surprised supervisor (“…you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:10).
There seems to be a direct line of sight from the amazed steward back to Christ, seeming to contradict the fact that, in the story, the steward immediately credits the bridegroom with the provision of this fine wine. This would seem to be a redirection of the viewer’s understanding of the story ‘upward’, toward its spiritual meaning. On the literal level, the bridegroom – as is fitting at his wedding – is the central figure. On the spiritual level, the ‘bridegroom’ has become a type, or sign of Christ. Giotto has even robed them in similar garments to emphasize this unity of meaning.
The feast itself – noticeably lacking any foods but bread and wine – is now seen as an image of the Eucharistic feast. Both Christ and the bridegroom raise hands of blessing over the bread, and the servant girl in the center seems to bow before it reverently. The girl in pink, arms folded, gazing intently at Jesus, might have seemed idle as a servant, but now reminds us of the Mary who sat still in the presence of Jesus while her sister, Martha, bustled around, busily preparing a meal for Him. (Lk 10:38-42) Each, in her own (though outwardly opposite) way, gives Him reverent attention – as these two servant girls, back-to-back, clearly do.
On Christ’s left sits a young man who seems to be listening to the narrator, St. John, who tells this story in his gospel account. Their oblique perspective on the scene suggests again that the literal events are meant to be seen and understood on another, spiritual, level. The young man sits, hands folded, more like a student/disciple than an active participant in a festive meal. He represents, perhaps, all those who would later be instructed through St. John’s retelling of the story of this feast.
The bride looking toward her husband mirrors Mary’s gaze at the miraculous wine – a direction of our gaze toward the moral sense that reverberates all through this painting. “Listen to Him,” says the girl on the left. “Learn of Him,” says St. John. “Bow to Him,” says the girl in green. “Follow His mother’s example,” says the bride. “Do as He tells you,” says Mary. “Take, and drink!” says the steward. The moral instructions conveyed by these events and by the artist’s careful rendering could not be clearer. Eventually, the viewer’s eye is drawn upward, past these ‘lower levels’ to a much higher plane.
Though the blue of the heaven-like ceiling is only a few feet above the seated guests, its distance is amplified by a three-part horizontal band. The colorful wall stops abruptly at the plastered white wall, where a decorative molding further accentuates the separation of the upper level. Finally, an almost crown-like balcony, carved with three rows of crosses and topped with six small urn-shaped finials lifts our eyes to what must be the highest meaning – the eternal significance – of this story. A seventh urn, much larger than the six, is centered precisely over the bridegroom, raising our understanding of the sign of ‘new wine’ to the sense in which a wedding feast prefigures the eventual fulfillment of the new covenant in the Wedding Supper wherein Christ will receive His Bride, the Church. “At Cana, the mother of Jesus asks her son for the needs of a wedding feast; this is the sign of another feast – that of the wedding of the Lamb where he gives his body and blood at the request of the Church, his Bride.” (CCC 2618)
Also directing our gaze fully upward is a vertical line of bright white paint at the left margin that seems to indicate quite a bright light shining from that direction, which also brightens the left side of the ‘crown balcony’ and flows across the white table cloth, over the white water jars, and even over the obedient servant girl in white. The dual movement of this light suggests the vertical-and-horizontal of the Cross, and also highlights the three gestures of blessing as it moves through Christ, man (the bridegroom) and Mary toward the fulfillment of the promise of finest wine.
The anagogical level leads us to the covenantal significance of this (and of every) wedding and of the Eucharistic feast. The literal wedding – like the natural elements of bread and wine, or the temporal covenant of natural marriage, is overshadowed and suffused with new life and meaning by what must be the Holy Spirit – shown as light, movement, and power. Because this wedding feast prefigures the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the Eucharist, it also directs our attention “toward the fulfillment of the Passover in the kingdom of God” (CCC 1403). The Eucharist is the sign of the marriage covenant of Redemption between Christ and His Church (Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20, CCC 1405). The Old and New Covenants are joined together definitively in the feasts of Passover, Cana, and Eucharist, where all eyes are directed toward the coming kingdom, where the sign of Marriage, the signs of Bread and Wine, the signs of blood and water,and the sign of the Cross will be fulfilled in glory. (CCC 1359-1363, CCC 1334, 1335)