The content of the painting also consists of a complex mixture of the sacred and the profane, religious and secular, theatrical and mundane, European and Oriental. Depicted in the grand style of contemporary Venetian society, the banquet takes place within a courtyard flanked by Doric and Corinthian columns and bordered by a low balustrade. In the distance can be seen an arcaded tower, designed by the Padua-born architect Andrea Palladio. In the centre-foreground, a group of musicians are playing various lutes and stringed instruments. The musical figures include the four great painters of Venice: Veronese himself (dressed in white, playing the viola da gamba), Jacopo Bassano (on flute), Tintoretto (violin), and Titian (dressed in red, playing the violoncello).
The diners at the nuptial table - all waiting for wine to be served for the dessert course of the meal - include: the bride and groom (seated at the left end of the table), Jesus Christ (centre of the table), surrounded by Mary and the Apostles, along with a bewildering array of royalty, noblemen, officials, clerks, servants, and others, representing a cross-section of Venetian society and dressed variously in Biblical, Venetian or Oriental outfits and adorned with sumptuous coiffures and items of jewellery. Numerous historical figures appear in The Wedding Feast at Cana including: Emperor Charles V, Eleanor of Austria, Francis I of France, Mary I of England, Suleiman the Magnificent, Vittoria Colonna, Giulia Gonzaga, Cardinal Pole, and Sokollu Mehmet Pasa. In all, some 130 unique figures are depicted.
The detail in the painting is staggering. Above Jesus, on the elevated walkway on the other side of the ballustrade, a butcher is cutting up meat; while a porter (right) arrives with more supplies. At the foot of the picture, a barefoot manservant (right) pours red wine from a large, ornate cask into a pitcher. Standing behind the servant, studying the contents of his wine glass is Benedetto Caliari (Veronese's brother). A black-skinned, servant boy (far-left) offers a glass of wine to the bridegroom; behind him, a dwarf is holding a bright green parrot. Note the detail of the cutlery and dishes laid out on the table - each place setting, for example, consists of a napkin, knife and fork. And see the little brown and white dog standing on the table to the right of Benedetto Caliari. Notice also the dog (top-left) poking its nose through the balustrade, and the cat (right) playing on its back on the right.
NOTE: While many figures in the picture interact with one another, none of them are actually speaking. This is to comply with the code of silence observed by all Benedictine monks in the refectory where the painting was to hang.
The Wedding Feast at Cana contains a wealth of symbolism. The entire work, for instance, symbolizes the interplay between earthly pleasure and earthly mortality. Behind the balustrade, above the figure of Jesus, an animal is being slaughtered, an allusion to the forthcoming sacrifice of Jesus, as the Lamb of God - a reference which is supported by the dog who is chewing a bone at the foot of the painting. Meanwhile, to the left of Jesus, The Virgin Mary cups her hands to represent a glass that will contain the new wine - that is, the Blood of Christ. In addition, set in front of the musicians is an hourglass, a standard reference to the transience of earthly pleasures including human vanity. (See Vanitas Painting, 17th century.)
While much of this magnificent work of Christian art is devoted to expressing the joy of life as well as the achievements and splendours of the Venetian Republic, Veronese is careful to place Jesus centre-stage. In fact, not only is the haloed Christ given the prime position in the central span of the banquet table, but he is the only figure in the entire canvas who looks directly at the viewer.
Veronese's Renaissance colour palette makes a massive contribution to the power and grandeur of the painting, and to the delineation and characterization of its figures. His glowing colours include the hugely expensive lapis lazuli blues, imported along the Silk Route from the mines of Afghanistan; as well as yellow-oranges, burning reds, and Verdigris blue-greens. Due to a recent 3-year restoration program at the Louvre, many of the hues have regained their original brilliance. It was no coincidence that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the greatest colourist painter during the era of Baroque painting, owned a number of pictures by Veronese, which he kept in his studio.
Veronese's interpretation of the Biblical story of The Wedding at Cana caused a huge scandal among Venetian society. His emphasis on the hedonistic aspects of a marriage banquet, at the expense of the pious aspects of the occasion, ran counter to the religious sensibilities of the 16th century Republic of Venice. Undeterred by the controversy, Veronese produced an equally contentious "Last Supper" (1573), which so offended 'public taste' that a tribunal of the Inquisition ordered him to make a number of alterations. He refused and simply retitled the painting, The Feast in the House of Levi (1573, Venice Academy Gallery).
Interpretation of Other Mannerist Religious Paintings
The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88) by El Greco.
Church of Santo Tome, Toledo, Spain.
The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) (1577) by El Greco.
Cathedral of Toledo.
Last Judgment Fresco (1536-41) by Michelangelo.
Altar Wall of Sistine Chapel, Rome.
Madonna with the Long Neck (1535) by Parmigianino.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) by Titian.
Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.
In 1553, Veronese was summoned to Venice where he gave free rein to his decorative talent in vast canvases that blended masterful composition, splendid contemporary costumes, and luminous colors. The Wedding Feast at Cana graced the refectory designed by Palladio for the Benedictine monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore. With masterly freedom of interpretation, Veronese transposed the biblical episode to the sumptuous setting of a Venetian wedding.
A biblical scene within a Venetian banquet
In Cana, Galilee, Christ is invited to a wedding feast during which he performs his first miracle. At the end of the banquet, when the wine is running low, he asks the servants to fill the stone jars with water and then offer them to the master of the house, who finds that the water has been turned to wine. This episode, told by the Apostle John, is a precursor of the Eucharist. The bride and groom are seated at the left end of the table, leaving the center place to the figure of Christ. He is surrounded by the Virgin, his disciples, clerks, princes, Venetian noblemen, Orientals in turbans, several servants, and the populace. Some figures are dressed in traditional antique costumes, while others—the women in particular—wear sumptuous coiffures and adornments.
Veronese depicts, with apparent ease, no less than 130 feast-goers, mixing biblical figures with men and women of the period. The latter are not really identifiable, although according to an 18th-century legend, the artist himself is depicted in white with a viola da gamba next to Titian and Bassano, all of whom contribute to the musical entertainment. The bearded master of ceremonies could be Aretino, whom Veronese greatly admired. Several dogs, birds, a parakeet, and a cat frolic amidst the crowd.
The sacred and the profane
Veronese mixes the sacred and the profane in establishing the decor. Religious symbols of the Passion are found next to luxurious 16th-century silver vessels and tableware. The furniture, the dresser, the ewer, and the crystal goblets and vases reveal the feast in all its splendor. Each table guest has an individual place setting, complete with napkin, fork, and knife. In this doubling of meaning, no detail escapes the artist's eye. While in the center of the composition a servant slices meat, symbolic of the body of Christ, quinces—symbols of marriage—are served as dessert to the guests.
Veronese orchestrates a veritable mise-en-scène. The theme allows him to create a theatrical decor in which to place his figures. The composition is divided into two sections: in the upper part, clouds skate across a blue sky; in the lower, terrestrial section, there is the bustling crowd of people. The fluted columns topped with Corinthian capitals evoke the recent constructions of the architect Palladio.
The painter selected costly pigments imported from the Orient by Venetian merchants: yellow-oranges, vivid reds, and lapis lazuli are used extensively in the drapery and the sky. These colors play a major role in the painting's legibility; they contribute, by their contrasts, to the individualization of each of the figures. Thanks to a three-year restoration, the colors have regained their force and brilliance, sometimes even undergoing complete modification as in the case of the master of ceremony's mantle, which was changed from red to green—its original hue.
The Benedictines of the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery in Venice commissioned this immense painting in 1562 to decorate their new refectory. The contract engaging Veronese in the undertaking of the Wedding Feast was extremely precise. The monks insisted that the work be monumental, in order to fill the entire end wall of the refectory. Hung at a height of 2.5 meters from the ground, it was designed to create an illusion of extended space. This work of 70 m² occupied Veronese for 15 months, most likely with the assistance of his brother Benedetto Caliari. The commission was a turning point in Veronese's career; after the painting's success, other religious communities would clamor for a similar work in their own monasteries. Despite its exceptional dimensions, the painting was confiscated, rolled up, and shipped to Paris by Napoleon's troops in 1797.