BOSCH, Hieronymus
(b. ca. 1450, 's-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, 's-Hertogenbosch)

Marriage Feast at Cana

Oil on panel, 93 x 72 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The Marriage Feast at Cana was painted towards the end of Bosch's early period. The picture is not in good condition; the upper corners have been cut off, many heads have been repainted, and a pair of dogs at the lower left may have been added as late as the eighteenth century.

The marriage banquet has been placed in a richly furnished interior, most probably a tavern. The miracle of the wine jars takes place at lower right; the guests are seated around an L-shaped table dominated at one end by the figure of Christ, behind whom hangs the brocaded cloth of honour usually reserved for the bride; he is flanked by two male donors in contemporary dress. Next to the Virgin at the centre of the table appear the solemn, austerely clad bridal couple; the bridegroom must be John the Evangelist, for his face closely resembles the type which Bosch employed elsewhere for this saint. Although the bridegroom remains nameless in the New Testament account, he was frequently identified as Christ's most beloved disciple.

Christ and his friends are pensively absorbed in some inner vision, unaware of the evil enchantment which seems to have fallen upon the banquet hall. The other wedding guests drink or gossip, watched by the bagpiper who leers drunkenly from a platform at the upper left. On the columns flanking the rear portal, two sculptured demons have mysteriously come to life; one aims an arrow at the other who escapes by disappearing through a hole in the wall. From the left, two servants carry in a boar's head and a swan spitting fire from their mouths; an ancient emblem of Venus, the swan symbolized unchastity. This unholy revelry seems to be directed by the innkeeper or steward who stands with his baton in the rear chamber. On the sideboard next to him are displayed curiously formed vessels, some of which, like the pelican, are symbolic of Christ, while others possess less respectable connotations, such as the three naked dancers on the second shelf.

The precise meaning of all these details remains unclear, as does that of the richly gowned child, his back turned to the viewer, who seems to toast the bridal couple with a chalice. However this may be, Bosch has undoubtedly employed the tavern setting as an image of evil, a comparison popular in medieval sermons, thereby contrasting the chaste marriage feast at Cana with the debauchery of the world.

In its transformation of a biblical story, the Marriage Feast of Cana introduces us for the first time to the complexity of Bosch's thought. It presents, on the one hand, a moral allegory of man's pursuit of the flesh at the expense of his spiritual welfare, and on the other, the monastic ideal of a life secure from the world in contemplation of God. These two themes were to dominate almost all Bosch's later art.