Wine stories – part two

The first part of my autumn story about wine in art concerned ancient culture – I concluded this text with the statement that although Christianity gave wine a sacred role, some Old Testament stories with wine in the background are not free from scandalous notes. Now the time has come for the second part: about wine in the Bible and in sacral art.

Noah’s drunkenness

In the Book of Genesis Chapter 9, we read that after the Deluge, Noah, in whose ark humans and animals survived, set about reviving agriculture. He also planted the first vineyard, and since he lived for an exceptionally long time (as the Bible has it, up to 950 years), he lived to see quite decent wine. Despite being a pioneer of wine making he did not know what effects the abuse of this noble drink brings. Once, after drinking too much, he fell asleep naked in his tent. His son Ham, the father of Canaan, saw him and proceeded to tell the brothers about the compromising situation. However, Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth showed respect for Noah: they took a cloak, entered the tent backwards so as not to look at the nakedness of their father, and covered him with that cloak. When Noah woke up and learned how Ham behaved, he cursed his offspring, namely Canaan. This is how Jewish tradition justified the inferiority of Canaanites to the Israelites. The scene of Noah’s drunkenness often appeared in medieval and modern art – we can find it even on one of the capitals of the tombstone of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk  (Veit Stoss, 1492, the Wawel Cathedral) and in one of the Wawel tapestries (History of Noah series, workshop of Pieter van Aelst the younger, around 1550).

Noah’s drunkenness, mosaic in the cathedral of Monreal, Sicily, the eighties of the 12th century
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Lot and his daughters

An extremely scandalous biblical story with wine in the background appears in Book of Genesis Chapter 19, as a part of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God sent angels to the righteous Lot, ordering him to flee with his wife and two daughters from the city, which was to be destroyed for the transgressions of its inhabitants. Men who lived in Sodom demanded that Lot give them his guests so that they could “have fun” with them. Lot wanted to protect the newcomers, so he offered his neighbours his two virgin daughters, but the Sodomites were not interested in the charms of women. Eventually, Lot with his wife and daughters did as the angels told him: he fled without looking back. But then Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God – a rain of brimstone and fire fell upon them.

Lot’s two daughters and their father lived in the mountains, sheltering themselves in a cave. The girls lost their fiancés in Sodom and began to fear that they would not be able to find husbands and become mothers. So, they decided to fight for maternity... using their father! They inebriated him with wine over two consecutive nights and seduced him: first the elder one and then the younger. As the Bible says, “he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus, both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.” (Gen. 19: 35-36, ESV). From this incestuous misdeed, two sons of Lot (who were also his grandchildren!) were born: Moab and Ben-Ammi, from whom Moabites and Ammonites were to have descended. This is another story justifying the aversion of Israelites to other peoples.

Hendrik Goltzius, Lot and his daughters, 1616, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

A symbol of abundance

Have you ever wondered why the Israelites, after escaping the bondage of Egypt, wandered through the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land? After all, it actually takes a few weeks to cover several hundred kilometres on foot, rather than many years ... Well, the point is that God deliberately guided the Israelites in such a zigzag pattern so that the generation brought up in Egyptian captivity would die out during the journey. And it all began with a giant bunch of grapes.

God promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites, and Moses sent scouts there. They returned with a great abundance of fruit; on a stick they brought huge grapes growing on a vine. It was a sign that the Promised Land was extraordinarily fertile – unfortunately, the country was also inhabited, and it would have to be conquered first in order to claim it. Instead of trusting God and rushing into the battle, the Israelites began to rebel and even considered returning to Egypt. The wrathful God decided that they would not see the Promised Land: they would die during many years of wandering in the desert, and only their children would reach their destination. The generation which was born in slavery would not be able to build their own free country.

Cup from Michael Wissmar’s workshop – detail: medallion with a depiction of scouts returning with grapes, 1738, Wrocław, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, pubic domain

The depiction of the Israelites carrying a huge bunch of grapes appeared in medieval and modern art, not only in painting, but also in the works of goldsmiths. An example of this can be a cup from Michael Wissmar’s workshop in Wrocław from 1738, which is kept today in Cardinal Karol Wojtyła Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków.

The New Testament parables

Wine making was one of the most important branches of agriculture in the Mediterranean regions in ancient times, and unskilled workers found employment, mainly during seasonal work, in vineyards. That is why Christ, in his parables, often referred to wine making, using metaphors during his teachings to make it more understandable for a contemporary recipient of limited education. Announcing his passion, he told the story of how rebellious workers killed the son of the vineyard’s owner (Luke 20:9-19, Matt. 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12). Teaching about God’s mercy and reward in Heaven, he talked about the owner of a vineyard, who at the end of the day paid all workers equally, regardless of whether they worked all day, half a day or just a moment before the evening (Matt. 20:1-16). In addition, in the Gospel of John, Christ explicitly said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5, ESV). That is why the fruiting vine branch functioned in sacral art not only in the Eucharistic context, but also more broadly – as a symbol of the Church. Tangled vines with grapes decorated not only the altars or liturgical chalices, but also pulpits and more. An example could be a 17th-century pulpit from an Orthodox church in the village of Królowa Ruska, which was decorated with columns covered in vines, placed between the representations of the Fathers of the Church (originally, the pulpit consisted of three parts: a canopy with an image of the Holy Spirit, a basket and a casing of the stairs with a painted representation of a two-horse cart with the prophet Elijah.

Pulpit with images of the Holy Fathers of the Church, 1685, Królowa Ruska, District Museum in Nowy Sącz
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, pubic domain

Wine as blood

In many religions, wine functioned in a sacred sacrificial context, but it assumed a special role in Christianity as part of the Eucharist. In Catholic theology, during a mass, as a result of transubstantiation, wine becomes the blood of Christ, according to the words He said to His disciples at the Last Supper (“this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” – Matt. 26:28 (ESV), as well as Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20). Most often we see the Eucharistic role of wine in the representations of the Last Supper, although contrary to the popular belief, not all illustrations of this event focus on the establishment of the Eucharist.

Cup from Michael Wissmar’s workshop – detail: medallion with the Last Supper scene, 1738, Wrocław, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, pubic domain

In medieval art and in the early modern times, artists often showed the moment when Jesus announces that he will be betrayed, and points at Judas as a traitor by giving him a piece of bread (John 13:21-30). In such representations of the Last Supper, it even happened that the one and most important chalice was not on the table at all. The most famous, though it is not the only example, can be the painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1494–1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The miracle at Cana

However, it must be emphasised, that Christ’s relationship with wine is not limited to the Eucharist – the first miracle that the Messiah performed was ... turning water into wine! The episode from Cana of Galilee, described in the Gospel of John, is the beginning of Jesus’ public activity. It is also the moment when Christ first demonstrated his miraculous possibilities. Admittedly, he did not feel like doing so, but he yielded to the persuasion of his mother, Mary. That is why the representation of the Wedding at Cana functioned as an illustration of the effectiveness of the intercession by Mother of God.

Christ and Mary were guests invited to the wedding. Unfortunately, the wine ran out during the reception. Mary noticed this and asked her son to take some action. However, he answered her: “Woman, what does this have to do with me?”, rightly assuming that the issue of lack of wine at the wedding should not be a guests’ problem. And yet the stubborn Mary ordered the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions, and he became persuaded once he had seen her determination. Jesus ordered that the jars be filled with water, and it turned into wine. Of course, the Saviour did not turn water into any ordinary wine. The host of the wedding, upon trying the liquor, was surprised to find that it was particularly worthy. He even said to the groom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10, ESV).

Giotto di Bondone, Marriage at Cana, 1304–1306, a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel (Capella della Arena) in Padua. 
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

From the biblical stories one would like to extract the following teaching: the wine we drink should always be good, like that of Cana of Galilee, but it should not be abused, having in mind the fateful consequences that befell Noah and Lot.

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.


Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various ins titutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art:

Read other texts of Magdalena Łanuszka:

Agony in the Garden by Veit Stoss
An unusual programme of chalice decoration from the collection of the Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków
Wine stories – part one
Dragons in medieval art: the profane
Dragons in medieval art: the sacred
Medieval adulterous love
Medieval femme fatales
Resurrection in medieval art