Miracle of Cana | Art for Epiphany 2C

John 2:1-11 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.

Miracle of Cana
Miracle of Cana
Ivory panel
Carolingian, AD 860-70
The British Museum
This panel once decorated the cover of a Gospel Book (now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt) written and illuminated by a scribe named Liuthard. Liuthard is known to have produced three manuscripts for the French king, Charles II, ‘the Bald’ (AD 838-77) which helps us to date the panel.
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Miracle of Cana, Gospel Book Cover, Ivory, c. 860-870, Artist Unknown

Our sense of values is acquired partly through observations, direct experiences, and the process of enculturation. Among the materials of our natural world, we tend to be attracted visually to things that are rare and unusual. As we develop mentally, we construct a hierarchy based on experiences and the cultural values we have embraced. We learn that gold is valued more than clay; even though clay is more useful in many ways. Likewise, we respond to particular minerals and refer to them as “precious jewels.” We are attracted to ivory because of its pearly luster; it seems to welcome our touch. These materials have been treasured and used for thousands of years by people possessing power and wealth. During the middle ages, kings, popes and bishops built churches and private chapels. They also commissioned artists to enrich their surroundings with paintings, sculptures, and gospel books. Although art enhanced worship, it often served as a display of status as well.

Many gospel book covers were made of gold and embellished with jewels. Ivory’s whiteness symbolized purity and it was also a favorite material. The ivory relief carving of the Miracle of Cana, now in a museum in Darmstadt, Germany, was a cover for a manuscript that was likely made at the monastery at Reims during the time of Charles II, the grandson of Charlemagne. The cover depicts the well known story of Christ’s first miracle: Christ was with his mother, Mary, at a wedding banquet where there were many guests. When the wine vessels became empty, Mary asked her son for help. Water was poured into the empty vessels and Christ changed it into wine.

In this small relief sculpture, the story begins at the upper left side and proceeds in narrative form. The late O. M. Dalton of the British Museum described it as follows:

In the first scene, Christ and a disciple converse with the Virgin Mary while on the right, in a stacked perspective, servants wait upon guests seated at a table. In the bottom register two attendants pour water from vases on their shoulders into two of the six large amphorae. The story ends with the master of the feast in conversation with Christ.


Today, the slaughter of elephants for their tusks has caused a sharp decrease in the size of herds in Africa. People with wealth and greed, however, continue to pay enormous prices for ivory and this has led to unconscionable poaching. There is a distinct possibility that within the present century elephants will no longer exist in the wild.

Painters are familiar with ivory black; a pigment with a name that seems to be a contradiction. It is made by heating ivory to a high temperature. The deep black pigment obtained from this process was used by Rembrandt for the dark background in many of his paintings.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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