Nuptials through the Ages

Written on September 24, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Philosophy, Video

Rolf Strøm-Olsen

This is a happy month for our fellow contributor Miguel, who has just married and has hence temporarily disappeared! So in the spirit of this occasion, and by way of congratulations, here is a selection of five works relating to this theme.

1) From "Either" to "Or"

As a young man, I enjoyed reading Søren Kierkegaard’s The Diary of Seducer, which was included as part of a larger "Collected Works of" compendium. Seduction, in this rather odd vision, is the pursuit of the aesthetic – Don Juanism as aesthetic self-awareness.

I was later rather surprised to learn that the Diary of Seducer was not in fact Kierkegaard’s final say on the matter – proof that sometimes it pays to read the editor’s Introduction to such volumes. In fact it makes up the last section to part 1 of his 1843 work Either/Or – the ultimate expression of ‘Either’. Turn the page and you arrive at ‘Or’ wherein Kierkegaard praises marriage as the fulfillment of ethical life. Kierkegaard had only recently broken off his engagement, so that was presumably an act of intellectual and emotional fortitude. (Or else he was lying.)

Good Hegelian that he was, however, Kierkegaard sees resolution in this Either/Or dialectic through marriage. The fundamentally selfish nature of the aesthete is tempered, but happily not eliminated by, the binding commitment of marriage. So that’s good news: you can get married without sacrificing the aesthetic side of your nature, while exalting in your newfound ethical bliss.

2) "Cinque… dieci…. venti"

Lots of marriage in opera, of course. But is there any better than Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, based on Beaumarchais’ 1784 play of the same name? Act One opens with Figaro (a solid ‘Or’ man, by the way) having a pleasant pre-wedding bicker with his bride-to-be, Susanna while measuring out the space needed for his wedding bed (5 … 10 …. 20). This opera buffa, set in Seville, is set around the lechering of Count Almaviva who seeks to exercise his right of  ius primæ noctis.’ The ius primae noctis, at least as Beaumarchais depicts it, never existed – although it served as a solidly titillating premise for those who were apparently ready to believe anything about the practices of a benighted middle ages.

Interestingly, Kierkegaard was a Mozart enthusiast: if Figaro is the ‘Or’, Kierkegaard uses the lovelorn, over-amorous pageboy (sung by mezzo-soprano) Cherubino as an essential embodiment of his ‘Either’. "With regard to Cherubino," writes Kierkegaard,

I would say ‘drunk with love.’ But like all intoxication being drunk with love can work in two ways, either making the joy of life increasingly transparent, or compressing it into an opaque dejection. The latter is the case with the music here.

Well, I am not sure I would call this opaque dejection.

3) All’s well that ends somehow

Shakespeare’s perplexingly popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves a totally incomprehensible plot about various sets of lovers, fairies, Puck (very memorable), and some crude labourers (equally memorable). I have seen this play at least four times and I still have practically no idea what the hell is going on at any given moment. People fall in love, get in trouble, run around, fall asleep, cast spells, turn into donkeys and then there’s the highly farcical retelling of Pyramus and Thisbe. But one thing is clear: the whole mess comes gloriously to resolution in a group wedding, which marks about the first time in the whole play that you have any idea what is happening. Sort of.

Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous Wedding March as the incidental music to this play, although it is the extraordinary Overture that best captures the spirit of the work (including Puck’s braying after he is turned into a donkey). I like Oberon, King of the Fairy’s concluding benediction:

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;

And, with a wry nod to the practical, he assures the soon-to-be-copulating couples that their offspring shall be spared their faults:

And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.


4) The Pre-Wedding Portrait

240pxmary_i_of_englandProbably the most famous wedding-themed painting is that Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, but as modern research has raised considerable discussion on the matter, I will leave it aside (other than to note that the apparently very pregnant ‘bride’ is not in fact pregnant, but merely depicted in a style of popular dress of the period – another reason ladies to be grateful to Coco Chanel.)

So instead, how about the portrait of Mary I by Antonis Mor, or Antonio Moro as you’ll see him called in the Prado, which is where this painting is housed.

For reasons of state and religion, an engagement of marriage had been contracted between Philip II of Spain and Mary of England. Philip was 27, Mary was 38 and there was apparently little physical bond between them. In anticipation of the wedding, Moro was dispatched to England to paint Mary so the groom-to-be could have an idea what he was getting himself in to. Moro’s portrait doesn’t pull its punches. Bloody Mary, as she is known to English history given her penchant for persecuting religious dissidents, certainly looks rather grim and foreboding (note by the way that she offers the Tudor Rose in her right hand).

With this portrait in mind, it is perhaps little surprise that Philip arrived to do his duty without much enthusiasm (as Geoffrey Parker once put it memorably, "close your eyes and think of Spain"). Apparently Moro’s representation was spot on – Philip could muster little lust for his new bride and one hysterical pregnancy later (and duty thereby proved), he returned promptly to Spain. Moro’s eye did not lie.

5) The Best Wedding Party

I don’t want to end on that sour note, so finally how about what must have been the wedding bash to end all wedding bashes, that of Ariadne and Bacchus (also the subject of a famous opera, Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos and a ballet by Albert Roussel). Ariadne, the myth goes, had been abandoned by the fickle Theseus300pxtitian_bacchus_and_ariadne
after she had helped him escape the Labyrinth (of Minotaur fame). Disconsolate and probably pretty pissed off, Ariadne sat down for a good cry until Venus intervened and promised her a marriage to an immortal – none other than Greek God of Good Times Bacchus. As Bullfinch notes, "As a marriage present he gave her a golden crown, enriched with gems," which is pretty good swag. I also imagine that the wedding party, given Bacchus’ penchant for such things, would have been a highly entertaining, over the top,

hmmm… what’s the mot juste


Titian’s painting shows the eager revellers falling over themselves in anticipation of the festivities to ensue. Now that promises to be a good party.


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