The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-3) by Paolo Veronese
Interpretation of Mannerist Biblical Painting

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The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-3)

The Wedding at Cana (1563) Louvre, Paris. By Paolo Veronese.
Considered to be one of the greatest paintings of the Mannerist era.


Biblical Theme
Analysis of The Wedding Feast at Cana
Interpretation of Other Mannerist Religious Paintings


Name: The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-3)
Artist: Paolo Veronese (1528-88)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (St John's Gospel)
Movement: Mannerism (Italy)
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


Ranked among the leading Old Masters of Mannerist painting, Paolo Veronese is noted in particular for his enormous banquet-scenes, such as: Supper in Emmaus (1560), Wedding Feast at Cana (1563), Feast in the House of Simon (1570-2, Sabauda Gallery, Turin), Supper in the House of Gregory the Great (1572, Monte Berico, Vicenza), and Feast in the House of Levi (1573). These large decorative paintings - modern versions of the old "telero" or "scuola" paintings - gave Veronese ample opportunity to demonstrate his virtuoso figure painting and use of colour and established him as one of the great contributors to Venetian painting of the 16th century. During his mature period he managed to combine the colourism of Titian with the monumental forms used in Rome, to create a sumptuous style of painting decorated with dazzling costumes and colour. See also: Titian and Venetian colour painting (1500-76). The Wedding at Cana is his great masterpiece of Biblical art and arguably one of the most 'modern' religious paintings of the cinquecento. The huge work (roughly 22 X 32 feet) was commissioned in 1562 for the refectory, designed by Andrea Palladio (1508-80), in the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. The artist's fee was 324 ducats, plus board and lodging plus a barrel of wine. Helped by his brother, Benedetto Caliari (1538-98), Veronese completed the huge painting in fifteen months.

Biblical Theme

The theme of the painting is based on the Bible story told in St John's Gospel (John 2:1-11), concerning a marriage held at Cana, Galilee, attended by Mary, Jesus and his disciples. Towards the end of the wedding feast, as the wine begins to run out, Jesus asks that stone jars be filled with water which he then turns into wine. This episode - the first of the seven signs in the Gospel of John which attests to Jesus's divine status - is a precursor of the Eucharist. It was a popular theme during the Italian Renaissance and during the Mannerist era: famous versions of the subject include: "Marriage at Cana" (1305, Scrovegni Chapel) by Giotto; "Wedding at Cana" (1561, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute) by Tintoretto; "Marriage at Cana" (1566, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) by Giorgio Vasari. However, unlike most conventional interpretations, Veronese transposed the Bible story to the more modern setting of a typically extravagant Venetian wedding.

Analysis of The Wedding at Cana by Veronese

Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana combines elements of several different styles, adapting the Venetian colorito philosophy of Titian to the compositional disegno of the High Renaissance - exemplified by the work of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. To this he added one or two characteristics of Mannerism, as well as a quantity of allegorical and symbolic features.



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.


• For more religious Mannerist paintings by artists like Veronese, see: Homepage.

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