Giotto and the secret of the Marriage at Cana.
By Massimo Introvigne
In these times, in which we are talking again about Dan Brown, it is worth remembering that, besides the nonsense of the American novelist, Christian art and literature are filled with symbols, secrets and mysteries. Sometimes, in a symbolic way, works of art provide an explanation of the truth of faith according to codes that we have now lost but were understandable to the people who lived at the time of the artists; and sometimes they reveal legends, which are not the truth of the faith — and often they’re not even true — but, compared to Dan Brown, they have at least the merit of a long tradition.
An interesting example is the panel of the Wedding at Cana, from the series of frescoes by the Italian painter Giotto (ca.1267-1337) in the Scrovegni's Chapel in Padua, Italy. It is a series of frescoes that we all presumed to know, but which turned out to be an inexhaustible mine of hidden details that researchers have brought back to light, little by little. We probably owe the details to Giotto’s theologian of reference, the Augustinian Albert of Padua (1269- ca.1328), identified by the scholar Giuliano Pisani as the person who inspired the painting of the Chapel. Albert was a thoroughly orthodox theologian who had been appointed as an apostolic preacher by Pope Boniface VIII (1230-1303) and who cultivated a very strong interest for ancient legends.
It is true that Giotto also often visited the much less orthodox Pietro d’Abano (1257-1316 or 1317), but Giotto asked the latter to explain to him astrology, and the result of that was the series of frescoes in the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, which were unfortunately destroyed in the fire of 1420, and repainted between 1425 and 1440 by much less talented artists.
In the panel of the Wedding of Cana, what really strikes the observer is the prominent role of the six jars, the “six stone water jars...for the Jewish rites of purification....” (John 2:6), which Jesus had filled with the water that later will be transformed into wine. They represent the six ages in which, following Eusebius Pamphili (265-340), Saint Augustine divides history: from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, from David to the deportation of the Jews to Babylon, from the deportation to the birth of Jesus, from Christmas to the Last Judgement. And, since the human microcosm resembles the macrocosm, the six stone jars also represent the six phases in the life of man, from infancy to old age. The emotion of the portly master of ceremonies, also on the right side of the panel, attests to the miracle. But the true secret of the fresco resides in the characters. On the left, the groom sits between Jesus and Saint Andrew. In the center, there is the bride, between the mother of the groom and the Virgin.
Who are the wedding couple of Cana? If we observe the face of the groom, at this wedding reception, we discover that he is the same character that is represented somewhere else in the cycle of frescoes of the Chapel. He is Saint John the Evangelist, without the halo, because he wasn’t yet a disciple of the Lord. What was saint John doing at the wedding?
Two books, which were known to Albert of Padua, and were indeed very well known throughout the Middle Ages, provide the answer: the “Legenda Aurea”, the Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298) and the “Meditations on the Life of Christ”, erroneously attributed to Saint Bonaventure (between 1217 and 1221-1274). Both the pseudo-Bonaventure and Jacobus de Voragine relate that the wedding of Cana was actually Saint John’s. Therefore, the mother of the groom, portrayed by Giotto, would be Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles John and James; according to these texts, John, impressed by the miracle, left the house and his newly wed wife to follow Jesus.
And who would be the bride, who sits at the table with an absorbed-in-one’s-thoughts expression, almost as she was already foreboding the abandonment? Her red dress, and some features of her face — comparable to others that appear in different Giotto’s paintings — allow us to presume that she’s Mary of Magdala.
In the chapter entitled “De Maria Magdalena” in the book of the blessed Jacobus de Voragine, we read that: “Some say that Mary was the spouse of John the Evangelist, who had just married her when Jesus called him.... She was so indignant because her husband had abandoned her, that she left and she abandoned herself to all sorts of pleasure seeking. But because it was inconvenient that the vocation of John was the cause of her damnation, the Lord converted her to penance, by his mercy.”
Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and an author. The article originally appeared on the Italian daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, and was translated (by me) and published here with permission.
There are two other translations of interesting articles by Dr. Introvigne on this blog. One is about the alleged relation of Pope Francis I with the extreme right. The other is a look at the later work of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.
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