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Louvre: Gerard David – Marriage at Cana

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Gerard David - Marriage at Cana

Richelieu wing – 2nd floor – Flanders, 17th century – Room 19

The scene takes place in a house in Bruges, on the square of the Holy Blood, whose Gothic constructions are visible through the open windows. The feast table, which occupies the whole hall, is covered with dishes, cuts, and fruit. It does not seem, however, that the guests care much about their food; their grave attitude, gathered, gives them rather the air of faithful praying in a temple. The artist doubtless wished to paint his characters at the solemn moment when the miracle is to take place. All seem to turn their attention to the foreground, where the servants find that the pitchers and jars no longer contain wine. At the door of the room, a young page pressed, carrying a cake on a plate, but no one was aware of it, in the anxious expectation of the event.

At the center of the table is the bride, a blonde Flemish woman with regular features, covered with jewels, who modestly lower her eyes and cross her hands on her purple bridal dress. Beside her and around the table, the guests, almost all women, are arranged, and their attitude is as composed as her own. In two rows to the right of the bride, the Virgin, with her hands clasped, her head illuminated with an aureole, leans towards her Son and seems to beg him to perform the miracle. Christ listens to Her with downcast eyes. His face is that which Flemish painting adopted, after Jean van Eyck: a long, emaciated figure, terminated by a short beard with two points and framed by a large blond hair divided on the forehead into two headbands.

Christ raised his hand in the direction of empty jars. This is the decisive moment: the legendary prodigy will come true.

Outside the guests, the miracle will have other witnesses: on the left, in the foreground, kneeling on the flagstones, the donor of the painting; he wears the red coat and the black coat lined with furs by the provosts of the brotherhood of the Holy Blood; behind him, one sees his young son, kneeling also and with joined hands. On the other side of the canvas and in the same attitude is the donor woman. Through a window in the room, a monk followed with an interested eye the adventures of the scene.

It is far from this wedding feast to that of Paul Veronese, so overflowing with light, life, movement, and so sumptuous in decoration. The countries are different, the times too. The Renaissance is still far, we are before the work of a Primitive and a Flemish. It is the Gothic period of painting, that in which the composition is still unskillful, the hieratic drawing, the imprecise anatomies. There are some faults, such as the arms of the girl placed at the right of Christ, arms obviously too short for the length of the body. But, in balance of these minimal errors, what art already in the grouping of the characters that allows the artist to situate, on a canvas of small dimensions, nineteen figures and a landscape! Each of the characters is exactly in his place, and if, at first glance, the canvas seems to lack perspective, it is necessary to accuse only the spot of the sheet, which tends to confuse the plans.

What is particularly to be admired in this picture is the truth of the attitudes and the superior rendered expression of the physiognomies. Among the Flemish painters of the primitive period, the most implacable realism combines in search of dramatic expression. Even in religious matters, they see with their eyes much more than with their souls. They copy nature, but without idealizing it: their only objective is to be true and not go beyond it.

In Gerard David’s painting, however, there is a marked effort toward idealization. Her female figures are neither beautiful nor exempt from vulgarity, but the artist has shown an anointing, a serene poetry which makes one forget their ugliness.

And what about color? Gerard David possessed to a rare degree the gift of combining the most vivid colors, the most violent tones without causing them to collide. The blazing reds and the blinding greens blend with yellows that blaze. In the unskilful hands, these glitches would lead to the cacophony: under its prestigious palette, everything blends, everything harmonizes in balanced and shimmering sets.

Gerard David, a contemporary of Van der Weyden, enjoyed a great reputation during his lifetime, but his memory suffered, like that of all the Flemings, from the discredit which fell in the following generations what was called disdainfully Gothic art. And when the time for rehabilitation arrived, many of the works of the great artist, which were not signed, were attributed in turn to Jean Van Eyck, Rogier Van der Weyden, Thierry Bouts and more frequently to Memling. It is obviously the latter that most closely resembles the art of Gerard David, by his grace, his poetry and his tendency toward the ideal.

The Marriage at Cana was long attributed to the illustrious painter of the Shrine of St. Ursula, and it is under the name of Memling that we see this picture designated in the inventories of the Empire.

This picture had been bought by Louis XIV, for 15,000 livres, from the banker Jabach. Since that time, he has not left the national galleries. He is now in the Louvre, in Salle Van Eyck.

Height: 0.96 – Width: 1.28 – Figures: 0.60.

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