Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The New Patriarch of Venice

Cardinal Bagnasco (left) and Bishop Moraglia (right) 

It has been announced that Bishop Moraglia of the Ligurian see of La Spezia-Sarzana-Brugnato has been appointed to be the next Patriarch of Venice to replace Cardinal Scola. He is a very quiet unassuming but hard working Bishop During his four years as Bishop of La Spezia, Bishop Moraglia has presided over a rise in seminary numbers and championed devotional practices like perpetual Eucharistic adoration. 

He will be sorely missed.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Holy Fools

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Sleeping Fool 
Oil on canvas
support: 298 x 400 mm frame: 435 x 534 x 70 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool with a Flower 1944
Lithograph on paper
image: 167 x 292 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Joy of the Fool 
Roneo print on paper
image: 308 x 206 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool Carrying a Child 
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery 

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Fool: A Head
Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool Carrying a Child 
Etching on paper
image: 220 x 152 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989,  the British artist, was highlighted by The Rt Revd Lord Harries in his Gresham Lecture entitled Christian Faith and Modern Art: Distinctive Individual Visions

The Fool is a recurring image in  Collins` work It is an innocent figure that, although having no place in modern society, has the vision which is necessary to find fulfilment and eventual reward.

In his essay The Vision of the Fool (1947), Collins wrote that the Fool was the  "‘Saint, the artist, the poet’. 

He said that "‘modern society has succeeded very well in rendering poetic imagination, Art, and Religion, the three magical representatives of life, an heresy; and the living symbol of that heresy is the Fool. The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself’ 

He went on :
"'The saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, in him they live, in him the poetic imagination of life lives."
“The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself. This poetic life, born in all human beings, lives in them while they are children, but it is killed in them when they grow up by the abstract mechanization of contemporary society.” 

As Lord Herries pointed out:
"Not surprisingly Collins was drawn to the teaching of Jesus that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must become as little children with their openness and capacity for simple wonder at the world around us"

The idea of The Holy Fool is an ancient one in the history of Christianity. But in the old concept perhaps the idea of humility is paramount. As well as a desire to see reality and not artifice. And not forgetting humour and joy. 

In The Imperial Church (300-451), The Beginnings of Monasticism in Diarmaid MacCulloch Christianity :The First Three Thousand Years page 150 we read:

"One Syrian word for monk is abila, 'mourner'.  
One of the many Christian spiritual writers who sought to borrow respectability for his works by placing them under the name of the much-honoured Ephrem the Syrian maintained that Jesus had cried but never laughed, and so 'laughter is the beginning of the destruction of the soul'.  
Nevertheless, it was in this same Syrian setting in the fifth century that there evolved a particular form of sacred self-ridicule or critique of society's conventions: the tradition of the Holy Fool. 
It was a specialized form of denying the world. Behind its Syrian origins lurked a Greek archetype from before the coming of Christianity: Diogenes of Sinope 
The first well-known reviver of Diogenes's deliberate attempt to flout all convention was Simeon, who came to be known in Syrian as Salus ('foolish'). Simeon outdid Diogenes in active rudeness: when he arrived in the city of Emesa (now Homs in Syria), he dragged a dead dog around, threw nuts at women during church services and gleefully rushed naked into the women's section of the city bathhouse ('as if for the glory of God', his biographer optimistically commented).  
Not unnaturally he caused considerable offence, then somewhat illogically himself took offence at a group of girls who mocked him, miraculously leaving a number of them permanently cross-eyed.  
His affectionate chronicler a century later was Leontius, a Cypriot bishop. Bishops are not normally associated with antisocial behaviour; perhaps Leontius was writing in the same satirical spirit as Dean Swift. Certainly Diogenes 'the dog' lurked in some of Leontius's literary allusions - not least in the dead dog hanging from Simeon's belt 
The Holy Fool was destined to have a long history in the Orthodox tradition (although for some reason the Serbs never took to him). His extrovert craziness is an interesting counterpoint or safety valve to the ethos of prayerful silence and traditional solemnity which is so much part of Orthodox identity. Not all Orthodox theologians have been very comfortable with that contrast. 45 

(Footnote 45 See D. Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City (Berkeley and London, 1996), esp. 41, 43-4, 90-103. See also A. Ivanov, Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond (Oxford, 2006), esp. on Orthodox disapproval, at 2, and on Simeon in the bathhouse, at 115, and on Serbian silence, at 252-3.)

And we should not forget the great joker: Saint Philip  Neri  (July 21, 1515 – May 25, 1595)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Religion and Modern Art

Sir Jacob Epstein 
1880 - 1959
Consummatum Est
24 x 88 in
Private collection

Sir Jacob Epstein 
1880 - 1959
Christ in Majesty
As seen in nave of Llandaff Cathedral, Llandaff, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales

Sir Jacob Epstein 
1880 - 1959
The Visitation 1926
1651 x 470 x 457 mm
The Tate, London

Of this sculpture, Epstein said that the figure expresses
" a humility so profound as to shame the beholder who comes to my sculpture expecting rhetoric or splendour of gesture"

Sir Jacob Epstein 
Jacob and the Angel 1940-1
2140 x 1100 x 920 mm, 2500 kg
The Tate, Liverpool

Sir Jacob Epstein 
The third and final cast of 'Angel Torso'.
157 cm
The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology

He is currently in the middle of a series of lectures at Gresham College on the theme of Religion and Art

The lectures are available as video, audio podcast, word transcript and powerpoint presentation.

One  of the most important of his lectures was entitled "The Explosion of Modernism" which considered the work of Nolde, Jacob Epstein and Roualt.

But one aspect which he does not hesitate to discuss is the composing of religious works of Christian themes by Jewish artists. Nowadays of course it is not regarded as a problem. But it was not always so.

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Chagall (1887-1985) are the two most prominent examples.

Epstein is discussed in "The Explosion of Modernism" and Chagall is discussed in "Distinctive Individual Visions"

As regards Epstein, Lord Herries said:

"People were puzzled that Epstein, a Jew, should depict so many major Christian themes. 
So something about his religion, first of all his Judaism.  Brought up in a very Jewish Quarter of New York, a bit of Polish Jewry simply transplanted there, his father was a leading member and benefactor of the synagogue. In his household there were daily prayers, bible readings and Hebrew lessons. On the Sabbath the young Jacob had to spend most of the day in synagogue 
He duly went through his Bar Mitzvah. He found all this stifling, and distanced himself from it as soon as he could.  
However, it gave him a deep knowledge and love of the Bible, and a sense of the sheer power of the Biblical stories, as for example we see in  sculptures such as Adam, and Jacob wrestling with the angel. 
Whilst in New York he was as it were taken up by people in a settlement there. This settlement was no doubt very like such institutions founded by educated people in England at the time, usually with a strong Christian motivation, to enhance the lives and open up wider opportunities of those living in the slums of some of big cities.  
Epstein found that this wider world liberated him from the stifling confines of the Jewish ghetto, and introduced him not only to Christians who were an influence on him but Yiddish intellectuals who had similarly thrown off their religious upbringing. In particular a Mrs Moore befriended him and believed in him when he had lost faith in himself. ... 
Coventry Cathedral was almost totally destroyed by bombing in 1940 and in the early 1950’s Basil Spence was commissioned as the architect for the building of a new Cathedral. He invited Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Elizabeth Frink to do work for it. He also wanted Epstein and in 1954 took Bishop Gorton to look at the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square. 
The bishop stood looking up at it, oblivious of the traffic and said simply “Epstein’s the man for us.” 
Later when Epstein’s name was brought before the committee Basil Spence noted  “There was a shocked silence, at length broken by the remark, ‘But is he a Jew’, to which I replied quietly, ‘So was Jesus Christ’”

At this meeting Epstein was asked about his faith, to which he responded by saying  it could be seen in his work. In a radio broadcast he enlarged on this. 
My tendency has always been religious-it may not be known, but that is a fact…most great sculpture is occasioned by faith. Even the African sculpture, which we don’t understand, is full of their faith
So Epstein was an innately religious person whose upbringing on the Hebrew scriptures had gone deep. The other fact, in addition to the friendly encouragement by Mrs Moore and others at the settlement in New York was his life long friendship with some Christian intellectuals and clergy.  
He and Eliot became friends and  Eliot was amongst a small group invited to Epsteins 70th birthday party and the one who lit the candles on the cake. When Epstein died Eliot wrote to his widow to say 
          “It is as if some of my world has crumbled away.We loved him".
Epstein was buried at Putney Vale cemetry, with Dr Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury taking the service. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, at which his friend Canon Mortlock said
If we ask how it was that a boy born and bred in the Jewish faith and never embracing any other, should become the interpreter of the sublime mysteries of our religion there can be no clear answer. Such things belong to the inscrutable wisdom of God.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Silence and the Word

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Le Christ du silence
c. 1895 - 8
Charcoal and pastel on canvas and brown paper
59.5 x 47.5 cm 
Musée du Petit-Palais, Paris

Christ is the Word. The Word seems at the opposite end of the spectrum to Silence.

Silence and the Word was the theme of Pope Benedict`s Message for Communications Day :

"When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning."

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Le Silence
46 x 106 cm
Abbaye de Fontfroide, Corbières, near Narbonne

During the 1890s Redon responded to the Catholic revival that emerged in France during the previous decade and remained a powerful force in the nation's cultural life until the First World War

Redon had many close friends who figured in the Catholic revival such as Paul Claudel and the painters Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis on the one hand and the writers Leon Bloy and J.K. Huysmans on the other. All were admirers of Redon's work

By 1900, Odilon Redon had entirely abandoned the confines of his monochromatic Noirs, the macabre and enigmatic charcoals and graphic albums which had dominated the majority of his career.

As Klaus Berger observed, 'The demons have retired' (in Odilon Redon, New York, 1965, p. 88).

Redon never placed limits on the interpretation or meaning of the symbols he employed but rather believed that a subject should never restrict one's freedom of expression or interpretation.

Fontfroide was a Cistercian abbey near Narbonne  founded in the eleventh century. It was abandoned in 1901. It was acquired by Gustave Fayet (1865-1925), a French painter and friend of Redon.

Fayet asked Redon to produce decoration for the library. The result was and is a masterpiece. Le Silence is one of the works in the library.

Silence was a major theme in the work of Redon.

The work, Le Silence, invites calm and serenity, two attributes associated with an abbey and a library. The Word and words.

But in his Message the Pope provided a learned disquisition on the importance of Silence:

"Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.  
In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. 
 By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.  
It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.  
Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression.  
Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. 
When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary.  
Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge.  
For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds."

The silence of Christ can often be a test as it was for the Woman of Canaan, a test of faith:

"21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to Him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” 
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to Him and urged Him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 
24 He answered, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” 
25 The woman came and knelt before Him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” 
27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 
28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour."
(Matthew 15: 21 - 28)

It can also be the reaction when we attempt to put God to the test as in the narrative of the woman taken in adultery:

"1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 
2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not."
(John 8: 1- 6)

In the Passion the silence of Christ is remarkable:

"The high priests brought many charges against him 
Pilatus again questioned him, saying, 
"Have you no answers? Look how much you are accused of." 
But Jesus still said nothing. 
Pilatus was amazed."
(Mark 15:3-5)

Then there is another different type of silence when Christ is not present:  the silence of The Silence of Holy Saturday, the silence of the tomb

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Prayer of the Eucharist

Rodolfo Papa 
The First Mass of St John of Matha
Basilica di San Crisogono,  Rome

The distinguished Italian artist and art historian Rodolfo Papa now has his own website on Religious art. The blog is simply entitled Rodolfo Papa

He is also Professor of the History of Aesthetic Theory in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University, Rome,

Many basilicas in Italy have his works including Sulmona. His writings (in Italian only) appear very frequently in the Italian edition of Zenit

If one wants to know about religious art, look no further

Saint John of Matha (1154 - 1213) was the co-founder of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity ("The Trinitarians"). The Trinitarians` Church in Rome is The Basilica di San Crisogono

St John was a priest in France when he celebrated his first Mass on 28th January 1193. It took place in the chapel of the Archbishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully

There he had a vision. He saw a man in white with a blue and red cross on his chest. The man had placed his hands on two prisoners: one of whom was white, the other a Moor

The next day St John made a a retreat in forest with a hermit. The two men saw another vision: a stag carrying a cross in its antlers (reminscent of the story of St Eustace ?)

Troubled he discussed the visions which he came to interpret as a call to found an order dedicated to ransom Christian prisoners taken hostage in the Mediterranean.

Often these hostages were pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. As well as people who lived on the coast of the Mediterranean or traded there.

The mission of the Order put the lives of the Trinitarians at great risk. Many suffered death in their vocation

The order was approved by Pope Innocent III on 17th December 1198

In the work we see the vision of the saint occurring at the moment of Consecration of the Eucharist when the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper is repeated by the priest.

It is not the prayer of the laity. But the whole Church can attend and  join in the prayer

If we read the recent discourse by Pope Benedict XVI on prayer  which is on Jesus` prayer at the institution of the Eucharist, the depth of Papa`s painting is uncovered.The work perfectly illustrates what occurred at the First Mass celebrated by Saint John of Matha and its effects on Saint John and his ministry

In his talk, the Pope first reminded us of the context of the Last Supper. It took place at a feast which was a memorial of past liberation and when hopes for present and future liberation were rekindled:

"[O]n the very day He was preparing to bid the disciples farewell, the life of the people of Israel was marked by the approaching feast of Passover; i.e. of the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. This liberation -- experienced in the past, and awaited anew in the present and for the future -- was relived in the family celebrations of the Passover."

But this liberation is achieved by sacrifice, the self-sacrifice of Jesus:

"The Last Supper takes place within this context, but with a fundamental newness. Jesus looks to His Passion, Death and Resurrection fully aware of them. He wills to experience this Supper with His disciples, but with a wholly unique character, different from all other banquets: It is His Supper, in which He gives Something totally new: Himself. Thus it is that Jesus celebrates His Passover and anticipates His Cross and Resurrection."

This sacrifice arises from perfect love and charity. The repetition of the Eucharist is an act of the Trinity, of Trinitarian love:

"He therefore offers in anticipation the life that will be taken from Him, and in this way He transforms His violent death into a free act of self-giving for others and to others. The violence suffered is transformed into an active, free and redemptive sacrifice. 
Once again, in prayer -- begun in accordance with the ritual forms of the biblical tradition -- Jesus reveals His identity and His determination to accomplish unto the end His mission of total love, of offering in obedience to the Father’s Will. The profound originality of His gift of Himself to those who are His own through the memorial of the Eucharist is the summit of the prayer that marks the farewell supper with His disciples. 
In contemplating Jesus’ actions and words on that night, we see clearly that His intimate and constant relationship with the Father is the locus where He accomplishes the act of leaving to His disciples, and to each one of us, the Sacrament of love, the “Sacramentum caritatis”.
 Papa depicts the saint in action in the prayer. It is a common enough depiction when a prest or saint is depicted celebrating the Eucharist (as in The Mass of Pope St Gregory). The Eucharist involves action and words. The acts are what we call ritual which are part of the prayer. These acts are not theatrical or performance art. They are far more serious and profound. They are part of the prayer, the Reality and the witness to the Truth:

"Before the words of institution come the actions: the breaking of bread and the offering of wine. The breaking of bread and the passing of the chalice are in the first instance the function of the head of the family, who welcomes the members of his family to his meal; but these are also gestures of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger who is not part of the household to table fellowship and communion. 
These very gestures, in the meal with which Jesus takes leave of those who are his own, acquire an entirely new depth: He gives a visible sign of welcome to the meal in which God gives Himself. Jesus offers and communicates Himself in the form of bread and wine"

The Pope emphasised the profound transformation effected by the Eucharist:

"The Eucharist is the food of pilgrims that becomes strength also for whoever is tired, exhausted and disoriented ... 
From her earliest days, the Church has understood the words of consecration as part of her praying together with Jesus; as a central part of the praise filled with thanksgiving through which the fruit of the earth and of men’s hands are given to us anew by God in the form of Jesus’ Body and Blood, as God’s gift of Himself in His Son’s self-emptying love (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, II, pg. 128).  
In participating in the Eucharist, in nourishing ourselves on the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God, we unite our prayer to that of the paschal Lamb on His last night, so that our lives might not be lost, despite our weakness and infidelity, but might be transformed."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

St Agnes: Portraits

Gonzales Coques 1614/18 - 1684 
Portrait of a Woman as Saint Agnes about 1680 
Oil on silver 18.3 x 14.4 cm 
The National Gallery, London (on long term loan to The Rubens House, Antwerp)

The patron saint of gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins has long been venerated since her death in AD 304

However these days her stock is not as high as previously was the case.

In the seventeenth century, portrait painting was the vogue. It became more common than before.

The upper middle class and the aristocracy sometimes had themselves portrayed in the dress from figures in Roman history and Latin literature to illuminate the sitter’s life. Sometimes as above even as saints.

There is a notable example in The Royal Collection of HM The Queen in London: Anthony Van Dyck Lady Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (1622-85) as St Agnes c.1637

The young woman in Coques` painting is possibly Maria Agnes, one of the daughters of Jacomo van Eycke and Cornelia Hillewerve. The rich merchant couple bought the Rubens House in 1660. The porchway of the Rubens House is depicted in the background

By 1650, Coques had effectively adapted the van Dyckian portrait style for his portraits. For architecture, his style derives from Rubens’s family portraits and ‘conversation pieces’

The work was probably a gift for a future husband

The lamb is a play on her name (Latin agnus lamb) while the sword indicates her martyr’s death. 

The self-agrandissement in the portrait does not sit well with modern tastes. The modern taste for realism perhaps favours a more Italianate style of the early seventeenth century such as that of Francesco del Cairo below. This work depicts  a brutal murder. But within the picture we see how a young girl`s faith overcame threats and violence. Perhaps more memorable and inspirational than that of the Flemish paintings of the seventeenth century.

In this sexualised age, we detect an eroticism in the painting which was not intended and would not have been conveyed and detected by contemporary viewers.

Francesco del Cairo (1607-1665) (aka Il Cavaliere del Cairo) 
The Death of St Agnes 1635 
Oil on canvas 66 x 52 cm 
Galleria Sabauda, Turin

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Wedding in Cana

Nowadays  the reading of The Wedding at Cana is influenced by David Hume and the post-Enlightenment and the debate on whether Jesus performed miracles or not

Attention is on the physical changing of water into wine. Or not. And whether it is proof of the divinity of Christ or not.

But St Augustine described what happened in Cana as "mysterious" and redolent with symbols and signs (Tractate 8 (John 2:1-4); and Tractate 9 (John 2:1-2)

Some of the "mystery" of the story is caught in the following work which was used as a model for many depictions of the scene in Germany in the nineteenth century. It is replete with meaning - perhaps too much.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Oil on canvas, 
140 x 210 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The incident is only related in John. The other Gospels do not relate it. It is the first of Jesus`s miracles or rather "signs".  It comes at the beginning of his public ministry when there were not even  twelve disciples or apostles.  

Blessed Pope John Paul II thought that the location of the sign in John`s text- the beginning of Chapter 2 -  was very significant:

"The expression “the beginning of his miracles”, which the Council has taken from John’s text,[(Lumen gentium, n. 58)] attracts our attention. The Greek term arche, translated as “beginning”, is used by John in the Prologue of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1). This significant coincidence suggests a parallel between the very origins of Christ’s glory in eternity and the first manifestation of this same glory in his earthly mission"
(Blessed Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, 5 March 1997)

The Text in St John`s Gospel

John writes:
"1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 
2 Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. 
3 When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." 
4 (And) Jesus said to her, "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servers, "Do whatever he tells you." 
6 Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus told them, "Fill the jars with water." So they filled them to the brim. 
8 Then he told them, "Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter." So they took it. 
9 And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom 
10 and said to him, "Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now." 
11 Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him. 
12 After this, he and his mother, (his) brothers, and his disciples went down to Capernaum and stayed there only a few days."
It is the first of a number of "signs" made by Jesus and narrated in Chapter 2. But John has the following comment regarding these signs:
"23 While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. 
24 But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, 
25 and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well."
(John 2: 23 - 25)

The setting of the incident 

It is in the village of Cana. There is disagreement as to where Cana was. It was a small hill village. But only John mentions Cana (in this and some other occasions). It is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture 

It is a wedding. We do not know whose wedding it was. 

There was a tradition among some in late  medieval times that the groom was St John himself.  It was based on the Apochrypha and the stories set out in Jacobus de Voragine. Others went further and said that the bride was St Mary Magdalene. But even Jacobus de Voragine thought that too fanciful and rejected it absolutely. 

Here are two paintings both by Flemish artists and based on the legend that the bridegroom was St John:

Juan de Flandes (active by 1496–died 1519)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
ca. 1500–1504 
Oil on wood 
8 1/4 x 6 1/4 in. (21 x 15.9 cm) 
The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen c. 1500 - 1559 
The Marriage at Cana
c. 1530
Oil on panel
66 x 84,5 cm

Vermeyen`s work is hypnotic. It is a remarkable work. Realism and Chiaroscuro did not begin with Caravaggio. The Flemish artists of the sixteenth century had already perfected the technique.

Unusually the artists makes the bride and the bridegroom major figures in the narrative. This emphasis on their identification with St John and St Mary Magdalene detracts from the painting. The intimacy of the theme and the chiaroscuro effects inevitably suggests the compositions of the Caravaggisti`s depictions of the scene at Emmaus.  However the identification of the Feast with the Eucharist is another major theme considered below

But presumably like all rural weddings that used to take place in the Mediterranean the wedding was not a quiet or private occasion. It was a public and  communal occasion in which the whole village and the whole extended families and friends were invited. 

Weddings in the Holy Land were celebrated for a whole week. Much wine was consumed.

The running out of wine would have been a  personal disaster for the spouses and their families. It would never have been lived down. It would always be remembered. The beginning of the marriage would have been to say the least inauspicious.

It is the setting of the wedding which is emphasised by the Vatican website when it discusses the incident as the Second Mystery of Light:
""On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign ­at his mother's request - during a wedding feast: The Church attaches great importance to Jesus' presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ's presence" (CCC, 1613)."

Feasting at a crowded wedding is the predominant theme in a number of works such as these. Everyone loves a wedding:

Diego Oronzo Bianchi di Manduria (1683 - 1767)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
18th century
Oil on canvas
Santa Maria degli Angeli , Gallipoli, Puglia, Italy

Leandro da Ponte (Leandro Bassano)
The Marriage at Cana c. 1579
Oil on canvas
127 cm x 203 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

A Spiritual Union

But it is more than an affirmation of a marriage between man and woman. The early Church saw it as a symbol of much greater significance: a Spiritual Marriage, the prefiguration of the institution of the Eucharist and the sacrifice on Calvary:
"The context of a wedding banquet, chosen by Jesus for his first miracle, refers to the marriage symbolism used frequently in the Old Testament to indicate the Covenant between God and his People (cf. Hos 2:21; Jer 2:1-8; Ps 44; etc.), and in the New Testament to signify Christ’s union with the Church (cf. Jn 3:28-30; Eph 5:25-32; Rv 21:1-2, etc.) .
According to the interpretation of Christian authors, the miracle at Cana also has a deep Eucharistic meaning. Performing this miracle near the time of the Jewish feast Passover (cf. Jn 2:13), Jesus, as he did in multiplying the loaves (cf. Jn 6:4), shows his intention to prepare the true paschal banquet, the Eucharist. His desire at the wedding in Cana seems to be emphasized further by the presence of wine, which alludes to the blood of the New Covenant, and by the context of a banquet."
(Blessed Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, 5 March 1997)

Pope Benedict XVI put it more expansively (Monday, 11 September 2006):
" [He] gives a sign, in which he proclaims his hour, the hour of the wedding-feast, the hour of union between God and man.  
He does not merely “make” wine, but transforms the human wedding-feast into an image of the divine wedding-feast, to which the Father invites us through the Son and in which he gives us every good thing, represented by the abundance of wine.  
The wedding-feast becomes an image of that moment when Jesus pushed love to the utmost, let his body be rent and thus gave himself to us for ever, having become completely one with us - a marriage between God and man.  
The hour of the Cross, the hour which is the source of the Sacrament, in which he gives himself really to us in flesh and blood, puts his Body into our hands and our hearts, this is the hour of the wedding feast.  
Thus a momentary need is resolved in a truly divine manner and the initial request is superabundantly granted. Jesus' hour has not yet arrived, but in the sign of the water changed into wine, in the sign of the festive gift, he even now anticipates that hour.

It is this spiritual dimension which is recorded in these works especially in the last of the 'Flemish Primitives':

 Gérard David (c 1460-1523)
The Wedding Feast at Cana
1501 - 1502
Oil on wood
1.0 m. x 1.280 m.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto) (1518-1594)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
Oil on canvas
4.35m x 5.45 m
Commissioned, Painted and still in situ in the Sacristy of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Lavinia Fontana 
1552 - 1614
The Marriage Feast at Cana 
Oil on copper
26 1/4 by 14 3/4 in.; 66.5 by 37.5 cm.
Private collection

The six stone jars

The superabundance of the grace of Christ is seen in the amount of wine which results. The six stone jars John speaks of would together hold about 150 gallons, that is, about 800 bottles’ worth. Such superabundance is seen again in the Feeding of the Five Thousand

But the early Church saw a greater significance in the six stone jars. Early Christian art focuses on these:

Panel depicting the filling of the water pots at the Miracle of Cana, 
Relief in ivory
c. AD 650

The stone jars were filled with water for Jewish religious rites. The transformation of the water into wine was seen as the supersession of the Old Law by the New Law

But there is more. 

In Tractate 9, Saint Augustine expounds at length on the pots:

"And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 
Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know.  
The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world.  
Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets.  
Hence there were there six water-pots, which He bade be filled with water.  
Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy"

The role of Mary

And then but not least we come to Mary. 

Mary had a major role in what happened at Cana. Without her the great "sign" would not have occurred She is the instigator of the first public manifestation of Christ`s ministry

It is in this incident that we have the last recorded authentic words of Mary. "They have no wine."  "Do whatever he tells you." 

Cyr Manuel Evgenikos 
(14th century)
Fragment of The Marriage Feast at Cana
South transept, The Church of The Holy Saviour, Tsalendjikha, Georgia

Yet there is something very disturbing about this part of the tale.

Saint Augustine and Pope Benedict XVI both point out what is wrong or seems to be wrong: we do not like the way Christ talks to Mary, his mother

"In the first place, we don't like the way he addresses her: “Woman”. Why doesn't he say: “Mother”? ... 
Yet we like even less what Jesus at Cana then says to Mary: “Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). We want to object: you have a lot to do with her! It was Mary who gave you flesh and blood, who gave you your body, and not only your body: with the “yes” which rose from the depths of her heart she bore you in her womb and with a mother's love she gave you life and introduced you to the community of the people of Israel."

Mattia Preti 1613 - 1699
The Marriage at Cana
about 1655-60
Oil on canvas 
203.2 x 226 cm
The National Gallery, London

Pope Benedict XVI explains thiese difficulties in his Homily
It was also considered in the ARCIC document Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

It considered the role of Mary in the entirety of St John`s Gospel, the great Christological Gospel where the emphasis is on the Divinity of Christ. Mary is fully human. Christ is wholly human and wholly divine. The public ministry of Christ changes His relationship with his mother:

"Mary in John’s Gospel 
22 Mary is not mentioned explicitly in the Prologue of John’s Gospel. However, something of the significance of her role in salvation history may be discerned by placing her in the context of the considered theological truths that the evangelist articulates in unfolding the good news of the Incarnation. The theological emphasis on the divine initiative, that in the narratives of Matthew and Luke is expressed in the story of Jesus’ birth, is paralleled in the Prologue of John by an emphasis on the predestining will and grace of God by which all those who are brought to new birth are said to be born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:13). These are words that could be applied to the birth of Jesus himself.  
23 At two important moments of Jesus’ public life, the beginning (the wedding at Cana) and the end (the Cross), John notes the presence of Jesus’ mother. Each is an hour of need: the first on the surface rather trivial, but at a deeper level a symbolic anticipation of the second.  
John gives a prominent position in his Gospel to the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), calling it the beginning (archē) of the signs of Jesus. The account emphasizes the new wine which Jesus brings, symbolizing the eschatological marriage feast of God with his people and the messianic banquet of the Kingdom. The story primarily conveys a Christological message: Jesus reveals his messianic glory to his disciples and they believe in him (2:11). 
24 The presence of the “mother of Jesus” is mentioned at the beginning of the story: she has a distinctive role in the unfolding of the narrative. Mary seems to have been invited and be present in her own right, not with “Jesus and his disciples” (2:1-2); Jesus is initially seen as present as part of his mother’s family.  
In the dialogue between them when the wine runs out, Jesus seems at first to refuse Mary’s implied request, but in the end he accedes to it. This reading of the narrative, however, leaves room for a deeper symbolic reading of the event.  
In Mary’s words “they have no wine”, John ascribes to her the expression not so much of a deficiency in the wedding arrangements, as of the longing for salvation of the whole covenant people, who have water for purification but lack the joyful wine of the messianic kingdom.  
In his answer, Jesus begins by calling into question his former relationship with his mother (“What is there between you and me?”), implying that a change has to take place. He does not address Mary as ‘mother’, but as “woman” (cf. John 19:26). Jesus no longer sees his relation to Mary as simply one of earthly kinship. 
25 Mary’s response, to instruct the servants to “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5), is unexpected; she is not in charge of the feast (cf. 2:8).  
Her initial role as the mother of Jesus has radically changed. She herself is now seen as a believer within the messianic community. From this moment on, she commits herself totally to the Messiah and his word. A new relationship results, indicated by the change in the order of the main characters at the end of the story: “After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples” (2:12).  
The Cana narrative opens by placing Jesus within the family of Mary, his mother; from now on, Mary is part of the “company of Jesus”, his disciple. Our reading of this passage reflects the Church’s understanding of the role of Mary: to help the disciples come to her son, Jesus Christ, and to “do whatever he tells you.” 
26 John’s second mention of the presence of Mary occurs at the decisive hour of Jesus’ messianic mission, his crucifixion (19:25-27). Standing with other disciples at the cross, Mary shares in the suffering of Jesus, who in his last moments addresses a special word to her, “Woman, behold your son”, and to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” We cannot but be touched that, even in his dying moments, Jesus is concerned for the welfare of his mother, showing his filial affection. This surface reading again invites a symbolic and ecclesial reading of John’s rich narrative. These last commands of Jesus before he dies reveal an understanding beyond their primary reference to Mary and “the beloved disciple” as individuals. The reciprocal roles of the ‘woman’ and the ‘disciple’ are related to the identity of the Church. Elsewhere in John, the beloved disciple is presented as the model disciple of Jesus, the one closest to him who never deserted him, the object of Jesus’ love, and the ever-faithful witness (13:25, 19:26, 20:1-10, 21:20-25). Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus’ dying words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother. 
27 A corporate understanding of ‘woman’ also calls the Church constantly to behold Christ crucified, and calls each disciple to care for the Church as mother. Implicit here perhaps is a Mary-Eve typology: just as the first ‘woman’ was taken from Adam’s ‘rib’ (Genesis 2:22, pleura LXX) and became the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20), so the ‘woman’ Mary is, on a spiritual level, the mother of all who gain true life from the water and blood that flow from the side (Greek pleura, literally ‘rib’) of Christ (19:34) and from the Spirit that is breathed out from his triumphant sacrifice (19:30, 20:22, cf. 1 John 5:8).  
In such symbolic and corporate readings, images for the Church, Mary and discipleship interact with one another. Mary is seen as the personification of Israel, now giving birth to the Christian community (cf. Isaiah 54:1, 66:7-8), just as she had given birth earlier to the Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14).  
When John’s account of Mary at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry is viewed in this light, it is difficult to speak of the Church without thinking of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, as its archetype and first realization."

The Prayer of Mary: "Vinum non habent"

Gerónimo  Nadal (1507-1580), 
Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia : [cum Imaginibus et lineis rubris] 

Pope Benedict has cited Mary`s prayer as a model:

"Mary leaves everything to the Lord's judgement.  
At Nazareth she gave over her will, immersing it in the will of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). And this continues to be her fundamental attitude.  
This is how she teaches us to pray: not by seeking to assert before God our own will and our own desires, however important they may be, however reasonable they might appear to us, but rather to bring them before him and to let him decide what he intends to do.  
From Mary we learn graciousness and readiness to help, but we also learn humility and generosity in accepting God's will, in the confident conviction that, whatever it may be, it will be our, and my own, true good."

In his Purgatorio, Dante uses this prayer on the Second Terrace where those guilty of the sin of Envy are being purified. The prayer is seen as part of the cure for Envy.

Dante and Virgil first hear voices on the air telling stories of Charity, selfless generosity, the opposite virtue.

"The first voice that passed onward in its flight,
29 Vinum non habent, said in accents loud,
30 And went reiterating it behind us."
(Dante, Purgatory. Canto 13. Lines 28 - 30  trans Longfellow)

In the same way that Christ transformed water into wine at Cana, Dante reminds us that by the grace of God, those in Purgatory are transformed.

Mary`s order: " "Do whatever he tells you." ( Quodcumque dixerit vobis, facite)

These are Mary`s last recorded words in Scripture. They are in the form of a command

They are simple and direct. The words need no elaboration.

Pope Benedict used the words to make an exhortation:
"Mary told the servants to turn to Jesus and gave them a precise order: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Treasure these words, the last to be spoken by Mary as recorded in the Gospels, as it were, a spiritual testament of hers, and you will always have the joy of the celebration: Jesus is the wine of the feast!"