|Helena Fitzgerald||Jan 31, 2018|
It’s too big, and no one is looking. The Wedding at Cana is the second-easiest painting to find in the Louvre. In the only place in the whole building with clear signage, behind numerous panels of thick, obscuring glass, and crowded by hordes of tourists - individuals, families, and tours, mostly tours, Nikons and Canons and selfie sticks and iphones - hangs the Mona Lisa, the smug heart of the museum, raking in money like a tractor beam. The Mona Lisa is tiny, dwarfed by the wall, the glass, the crowd, its reputation. It seems even tinier, perhaps, because of what hangs across from it. In perfect contrast, The Wedding at Cana, the largest painting in the museum, is the size of a wall, so large that it feels dangerous to stand too close to it and look up. It utterly dwarfs its human viewer. When I look at it I feel absolutely certain that Veronese was someone who never worried about money. I imagine him sweeping color wildly out from a ladder in the corner of his own canvas, literally making something larger than himself. It has the same sense of dizzying scale as the Sistine Chapel, but it touches the earth and not the heavens. What’s wonderful about the Sistine Chapel is how angry it is, and in its simmering rage it reaches toward a tangible concept of god, bringing the horrors of faith down into the room from above. But Cana isn’t angry at all. It’s a wedding, as though that were the name of an emotion. It’s drunk, it’s happy, and everything is too much of everything. It’s a room without clocks or calendars.
In the Gospel of John, The wedding at Cana is where Christ performs his first miracle. He attends a wedding - whose wedding it is is unclear, but he gets an invite and shows up, anyway - and during the party the wine runs out. At Mary’s urging, he speaks to the servants, has them draw water, and bring it to the chief steward, who makes an extremely relatable comment about how aren’t you supposed to serve the best wine first, before everyone gets drunk. John calls it “the first of his signs... and it revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
Thomas and I actually got married, in the legal sense, in the sense of a page break between something and something else, three days before our big wedding party, at City Hall, on September 20th, the very end of summer. We had gone to get our marriage license two days earlier and the woman at the bank-teller desk in the long row of lamps and glass casings at the Marriage Bureau had been, seemingly, deeply offended by the fact that Thomas had been previously married. She asked over and over again for his former wife’s name, until he pulled out his divorce papers from a binder he had brought just in case, and I stood there helplessly, wanting to sink into the floor and die, imagining all the ways this civil servant behind her computer monitor with her tight-drawn mouth pitied me and thought I was stupid, all the things she must assume about our choice to marry each other.
Samuel Johnson called second marriages “the triumph of hope over experience,” which is a great burn and also accurate, as all great burns are. But that’s also what any love is - we have the research and the research says not to do this, that there are only two possible endings and one is heartbreak and the other is death. Most people at close proximity end up hating each other; most love when you dig down to its foundation is not kind. It is neither practical nor compassionate to make someone else important like food or shelter or air, to seal them up obligated to our joys and sorrows and small moods. Love - marriage, sure, but love more largely - cannot be other than a willful delusion, based on the most popular lie that any of us tell ourselves: But I’ll be different. My parents call their respective first spouses their “practice marriages.” TS Eliot says, by this and only this have we existed.
Everything went wrong at our actual wedding. I wore a dress I hadn’t worn in years, a flimsy handmade strapless thing from maybe the 1950s that I’d bought on eBay in 2008, when it had already been falling apart. The last time I’d worn it had been to a Christmas party at the end of 2013. I had left it in my closet since then, more an archive than a garment, but I put it on - hope over experience - to go to City Hall anyway. At the last minute I threw a backup dress into my purse.
Almost everyone was late, including me. I was in fact literally late to my own wedding. I messed up the timing and the coordinating of who was supposed to be the signatory witnesses. The whole time I felt like I was still shriveling under the the gaze of the woman from two days ago with her straight-line face asking for the name of Thomas’ former wife again and again and again. Couples thronged the rotunda holding-pen where we were sent to wait, with our paper numbers like a deli counter, and I started to recognize the familiar beginnings of a panic attack; I was dizzy and sweaty and couldn’t quite get a full breath in. When our number was called and we stepped into the room, I inhaled as big as I could, and felt the zipper at the back of the already precarious dress finally give way. I ran out like the bride in a bad movie, a friend trailing behind me, and sat on the cold tile floor of the bathroom of a municipal building in the heart of the city’s old harbor, next to a toilet paper dispenser, and waited to see whether not I would throw up. I didn’t throw up, and eventually my heart slowed and relented and climbed back down out of my throat. I took the dress off, balled it up in my purse, changed into the backup dress, and walked out, tall and shakily determined, to stand in front of the kind-faced and slightly puzzled city clerk waiting in the room I had fled.
We hadn’t realized we needed rings, so we used Thomas‘ class ring and my engagement ring. I hadn’t realized there would be actual vows. I hadn’t thought through any of it, really. The ceremony was at once slapdash-casual and blindsidingly momentous. We kissed and everyone cried and something felt real, larger than the sum of the day. We went outside and stood around talking about our plans for the week and telling unimportant stories about ourselves, just like any other day. Other couples going into and coming out of the same building waved to us.
The point of the miracle at Cana isn’t the miracle itself but the belief in it. This is the wonder of faith, I guess, to believe in miracles instead of research, to believe in delusion instead of science, hope over experience. Weddings don’t have to be religious, but it is hard to avoid the larger idea of faith rendered as the promise but us, we’ll be different. As one thing and then another went wrong at City Hall, I pointed out that everyone in that room - Thomas and I and the four close friends who’d come to witness us - had been a theatre kid, and so I said “well, ok, this is like the worse the dress rehearsal, the better the show, right? The worse this goes, the better our marriage?” I wanted a sign that all these small and embarrassing crises were not warnings but blessings, that they did not presage our marriage as a larger disaster. None of this is true, of course. Superstitions - whether those of theatre kids or those of faithful Christian believers - are patently not real, holding no substance. Our marriage would have nothing to do with my broken dress and bad timing, nor with a fable about transforming water into wine; the only thing it would have to do with would be itself, the day to day work and bargains of it, the fingernail-scratching small actions that would carry us into whatever future waited.
Miracles like the one at Cana are also the triumph of hope over experience, the willingness to accept that what is wondrous might be what is true. I was unable to name what I’d felt standing in that light-flooded city government room, but perhaps it was no more than another superstition. It was pledging ourselves publicly to the idea of miracles, declaring the intention to a shared delusion as loudly as possible, for everyone to see.
The Wedding at Cana, the painting, is a mess, an hysterical goulash of time periods and characters and narratives and purposes. Sober biblical figures flank recognizable Venetian noblemen, and imaginary wedding guests drink alongside a self-portrait of Veronese and several of his contemporaries, whom he has turned into the wedding band. Dogs and cats feast on scraps and discarded wine jugs, and Christ sits at the center like he doesn’t really know how he ended up here. In the bottom left corner, the couple in question almost seem to fall out of the painting, as if they can barely keep themselves tethered to their own reality, subsumed by the larger story that has taken over and rendered them unwritten. But the bride looks straight out at you from that corner. Her eyes seem, uncannily, to follow you no matter where you stand. In amongst this joyous depiction of revelry and bacchanalia, she seems apart and anxious, asking you to witness her, to stay with her just a moment longer.
Three days later we had a big wedding, a mess of guests mashed up together at tables, of wine and water and the bottomless iced coffee we insisted on even though the event started at 7pm. We got very drunk and everything was a little disorganized and a little off-kilter, and everyone dressed up in unlikely formalwear and looked beautiful, and we danced in a museum about death until one in the morning. Sam took a photo near the end of the night that looks exactly - almost weirdly - like a painting, and it’s the single image that most captures how the night felt. Its giddiness, the oil-on-canvas largeness of it, was the same feeling as the small room three days before, shakily vowing a commitment to do the least likely thing, to live in the register of miracles.