Marriage from Past to Present – Partners in Love & Life Pt 1

The very lavish Wedding at Cana by Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris
The very lavish Wedding at Cana by Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

Here comes the bride, fair fat and wide is a rhyme we used to chant as children during the 1950’s, when wedding bells rang out each Saturday afternoon at the local church. My friends and I always ran to see what the girl getting married looked like.

We were fascinated, seeing all the people dressed up and the bride decked out in white, much like the icing on the top of our favourite cup cake.

Over the centuries people have married for many reasons; social, emotional, financial, spiritual, religious and legal. The weddings we witnessed were very modest, if compared to the glamorous royal weddings that have captivated Europe during past years. Royal bride Princess Madeleine of Sweden married New York banker Christopher O’Neill in 20113 in an extremely lavish ceremony in Stockholm.

The guests included European royals, wealthy Americans, Pop Stars and various other celebrities who gathered together in glorious array inside the Royal Chapel for the event.

Princess Madeleine wore a bespoke wedding dress by Valentino Garavani made of silk organdy and ivory Chantilly lace, that fine, fashionable and fragile symbol of prestige that, in keeping with tradition had a very long train, some six metres in length. She also wore orange blossoms in her hair, which since ancient Greek times has been symbolic of good fortune. They were surmounted by a divine modern fringe Tiara, a royal order of sartorial splendour.

The Princess was a June bride, the traditional month for getting married during the northern hemisphere since ancient times. ‘Juno, the wife of Jupiter, for whom June was named in the Roman Calender, was considered a protector of her people, a goddess associated with love, marriage, fertility and childbirth.

Also, in Roman mythology Juno received orange blossoms when she married Jupiter, the supreme Roman god.

In June 2010, Madeleine’s older sister Crown Princess Victoria had married her personal trainer Daniel Wesling in a grand ceremony in Stockholm.

In 2011, Prince Albert II of Monaco wed Charlene Lynette Wittstock and in 2012, Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg united with the beautiful Belgian Countess Stephanie de Lannoy.

The truly big wedding of 2011 though was when Great Britain’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in front of an estimated two billion+ television viewers world wide.

A strong supporting cast of characters, including her scene-stealing sister Pippa, helped Prince William’s bride Catherine Middleton produce a wedding in her own unique style for a new age.

Their marriage ceremony in Westminster Abbey captured the magic, enchantment and excitement of this couple’s very special day when before God and between each other, they were joined together as one.

They proved that when two people truly love each other anything is possible in society.

In every sense we would have to say every marriage ceremony performed is a right royal occasion. These days however, it takes different forms among the worlds rich diversity of cultures. Essentially it is a social union in which interpersonal relationships are acknowledged and ratified by way of a ceremony, religious or otherwise.

Marriage is a sacred rite in most religions of the world and brings grace to those partaking. But does it still mean something when the fancy clothes worn are stored away?

What is marriage about in the 21st century? What is its future in a world where marriage is not just about the union between a man and a woman any more? And, why has it become such ‘big business’?

The big business part is easy, it means that a lot of people can make money, especially when some events today are more lavish than the royals! It has a lot to do with everyone wanting to be a celebrity.

Lots of people go to unbelievable expense to emulate the royals by providing a showy ceremony full of formal rituals, which is mostly about a declaration of  societal status and helps satisfy all those around them who want to see and be seen at such an event.

It’s certainly a long way from the simple style of ceremonies the heroes and heroines of Jane Austen’s time – the romantic age were involved in, such as when Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Edward (Hugh Grant) married showing great ‘sense and sensibility’ by wearing their everyday clothes with her holding a posy made from local wildflowers.

After all it was a union between two loving souls and one that their friends and relatives were truly happy to see happening. So what did it really matter what they wore?

For an intellectual aristocracy, such as those enjoyed by Jane’s male heroes it wasn’t about show, but about cementing the idea in the communities minds that a refined gentleman’s role in local society was about his being a ‘first among equals’.

Men like the gentle but very rich Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice were completely confident in their own worth, and showing off their wealth was not something they needed or wanted to do.

There is an idea around that it is only since the first century and the Christ event that marriage has been around. However that’s not really right either. Today we like to think we are very avante-garde living in partnerships, but are they a new estate?

A reconstruction of the Neolithic settlement 7000BCE Catalhöyük, in modern day Turkey

While no reliable records that marriage as we know it existed per se in really ancient times, it has been suggested by archaeologists that it is likely a common interest in survival would have seen people partnering up from the so-called Neolithic Revolution (8000 B.C.E. to 5000 B.C.E.), which is the main basis for those seeking a starting point in world history.

There is no way of proving people married in a ‘ceremony’ before Neolithic times, but we can deduce from evidence gleaned from other primitive societies that they most likely formed extended family groups.

People began entering into so-called ‘marital’ relationships once humankind emerged into what we would now call being a ‘civilised’ society.

This happened when they went from being nomadic to establishing permanent settlements, developing houses from simple mud and beehive huts to the more sound foundations of post and lintel construction.

Once that had happened the ‘social’ institution of marriage gradually emerged.

What we do know is that as Christianity spread during the Roman period and Middle Ages in Europe, the idea of free choice in selecting marriage partners designated by the church as a man and a woman increased and spread too.

The ceremony devised was symbolic of a mystical union between Christ and the church, and was intended to build on the ‘first’ miracle Jesus had brought about at Cana in Galilee, which had been commended by Saint Paul, revered as one of the most honourable of men of all time.

The focus was on three statements, later bound into the ceremony that declared marriage a holy estate, which was announced to everyone else in their society who came to witness the solemnization of matrimony ceremony. It stated that

  • marriage was ordained for the procreation of children…
  • as a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication…
  • for the mutual society, help of comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity

The very lavish Wedding at Cana depicted by Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

The story about transforming water into wine at the Marriage at Cana is given in St John’s Gospel 2:1-11. Jesus and his mother Mary are invited to a wedding where the wine runs out, embarrassing the host. The giving of hospitality was exceedingly important in his society and culture. So in some respects Jesus turned the water into wine to help him save face.

The story and its meaning has been debated ever since.

For me Jesus’ actions were meant to be a loving act, not really about the water becoming wine at all, but about how two people can become one through the transforming nature of Christianity and by declaring their love and giving of a troth, one to the other. It’s a private promise forever binding.

St John’s Gospel is a chapter in The Holy Bible. While a lot of people like to think it is, this book of various texts was not meant to be a literal document.

What it does do is provide many examples of how a belief in God can be all about transformation.

It was assembled originally so that people who knew nothing about Christian beliefs would be able to consider, to ponder, and to discuss them before they made a decision to become ‘Christian’ and a follower of Jesus.

It was made up of a collection of texts traditionally considered sacred in the Jewish religion (Jesus was Jewish) and those who followed the beliefs of the man they considered a Messiah, Jesus a young carpenter from Nazareth whose goodness and ideas about love and forgiveness were revolutionary.

The Old Testament contains ancient texts, which were written prior to Jesus birth. The New Testament declares his birth, telling us all about his life through the eyes of his apostles and followers. As well it provides revelations about a second coming.

The ancient texts provided the collective knowledge of wise men down the centuries, as well as a clear spiritual path for people to consider taking, as they continually struggle with concepts of good and evil.

Marriage for the ancient Greeks prior to Christ’s birth was an agreement between two people mainly for the begetting of an heir. Marriage in their society was all about polygamy, more than one spouse at a time, not monogamy, marriage with only one person at a time.

What the ancient Greeks clearly understood and defined so well was the many different aspects of love. Indeed they had many different words to explain it: agápe, éros, philía, and storg?

A more recent example based on their model would be the Chronicles of Narnia’s author C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)m, who explored the nature of these four types of love in his book ‘The Four Loves’ (affection, friendship, sexual, and unconditional)

He explained that there was the love and loyalty we have to a friend or the love for a parent, a sibling or any member of a family.

Both of these were both very different from intimate, romantic or sexual love, which is basically about the physical attraction that happens between two people, which he reveals is often not a love that will truly endure.

That only happens when the fourth kind, unconditional love emerges. This is perceived to be the very best kind.

Mary and Jesus - Pieta

Michelangelo: Pieta; Mary with her son the dead Jesus in her arms, courtesy The Vatican, Rome

For Christians, Jesus death on the cross was a penultimate example of unconditional love. Its all about giving, not taking.

In marriage its all about being prepared to forgive your partner or your child’s human frailty. It means that despite everything that happens, you remain faithful one to the other.

Supporting your partner’s weaknesses and admiring their strengths is the way forward. Unconditional love has no boundaries and is unchanging. And if it exists within a marriage then it is the highest estate possible.

Middle-Ages-MusicIt would be during the Middle Ages, an age when magic, science and religion were interlinked, that the giving of a ring would become an essential aspect of the marriage ceremony.

The ring is circle that has no beginning or end and accordingly, represents the enduring qualities of true love.

Silver Fede Ring (Clasped Hands)

Silver Fede Ring (Clasped Hands)

The record of the marriage of Constanzo Sforza and Camilla D’Aragona of 1475, has an inscription “Two wills, two hearts, two passions are joined by marriage by a diamond ring’.

The English prayer book of 1559 did not require that a ring be exchanged in the marriage service. The fourth finger became the most usual place for it to be worn.

In 1604 King James 1 (1566-1625) stated he ‘was married withall, and added that he thought they would prove to be scarce well married who were not married with a ring’.

Continued Part 2

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

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