“The Wedding at Cana”, Giotto di Bondone, c.1305, Capella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padova.
This is one of a sequence of scenes from the life of Christ by Giotto which adorn the walls of the Cappella Scrovegni. Often Christ and his mother are shown as just two guests among many at a large feast, but in this painting by Giotto, we see them sitting with the bridal party, which suggests an intimate connection between them and this family. This sense of intimacy is enhanced by the small enclosed setting. In common with Giotto’s other interior scenes the little room looks as if it might be a stage set. You could imagine it being lifted away to reveal an exterior scene behind, such as the Baptism or the Raising of Lazarus, which actually the viewer in the Chapel can see to the left and right respectively. This has prompted some scholars to explore links between Giotto’s art and contemporary literature and drama. Some of the characters are easily identified. Christ and Mary are shown with haloes at either end of the table. There is another man with a halo in the left hand corner who, we would assume, is one of the apostles. One character, who certainly doesn’t have a halo but is unmistakable, is the steward. His large rounded belly marks him out. There is humour in the visual pun made by the adjacent and similarly shaped water jars, which the viewer knows will soon be full to the brim with wine. Giotto shows several stages of the story at once. On the right Mary raises her hand as if giving instruction to the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. On the left, Christ addresses a servant and has a hand raised in blessing. Back on the right, a servant fills the jars with water and behind her the wine steward tastes the wine. Opinions on the identity of the others seated at the table vary. The central figure in red, seated to the left of Mary, has been identified as the bride, the groom’s mother and even the groom! The young man beside Christ might be the Evangelist and Apostle St John. He certainly looks like St John as shown in other scenes. A very similar looking young man leans on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper, stands at the foot of the cross, and weeps over the dead Christ before he is placed in the tomb. But in those scenes St John has a halo, whereas the young man at table beside Jesus does not. Giotto may have followed a tradition found in the Franciscan text “Meditations on the Life of Christ”. It says that St John was the bridegroom at Cana and that it was only that after this miracle that he became a disciple. Whether or not Giotto was using this source, to my eye the young man and the young woman to his right do look like the newly weds, whereas the rather matriarchal figure at the centre might be St John’s mother. In the Gospel of Matthew she is referred to as the mother of the sons of Zebedee when she asks that her two sons, James and John, sit at the right and the left of Jesus in his kingdom (Mat 20: 21). St Matthew also places her at the foot of the cross. Although, we can’t know for sure who Giotto intended the figures to be, what is clear is that he has given the miracle a fully human setting. Christ and his mother are shown as being closely connected to this family, so that the miracle becomes not only a sign of his divinity, but also a sign of the fullness of his humanity.
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