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Daily life: Wine as foodstuff, remedy and comfort

Oeuvre de Miséricorde : nourrir l'affamé, abreuver l'assoiffé. Domenico Ghirlabdaio (École de), Oratorio dei Buonimi di San Martino, Florence


Domenico Ghirlandaio (School of), 1478/81

Fresco (after restoration)

Oratorio dei Buonimi di San Martino, Florence, Italy





This fresco illustrates Christian charity: giving bread to those who are hungry and wine to those who are thirsty. It seems that the wine is drawn from the fermentation tank for immediate distribution. The same scene could have been captured at the Hospices de Beaune, which Chancellor Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins had just founded. There was the same distribution to the "poor" every day. It was already recognizing that wine was a staple product. It was used to fight the cold in winter and to cool off in summer. But it was much more than a simple drink: restoring strength and energy, wine was considered a real food with a high calorific value and a carrier of many mineral salts. Finally, water in the Middle Ages was hardly drinkable, it was necessary to cut it with wine.

The theme illustrating the Christian charity at the Oratorio dei Buonimi di San Martino is taken up by other artists. Six primary Christian acts are listed by Matthew in the Parable of the Day of Judgement: “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison” (additional instructions to “bury the dead” would appear in the 12th century). In Catholic theology, acts of mercy or donations to charity can act as a penance. After Luther, many Protestant thinkers criticized the notion of ‘buying salvation’ through gifts to the Church: they believed that everything had already been decided, and that no act of charity would save those who were not destined for salvation.


La congrégation des Buonomi, confraternité laïque, était chargée de collecter les aumônes et de les redistribuer, dans la plus grande discrétion, aux pauvres qui avaient honte de l'être. Une ouverture ménagée dans le murde l'oratoire permettait aux nécessiteux de venir chercher du pain et du vin sans monter leur visage. 

Suggestion: Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 39 Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot / Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry? (1726)

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4. This painting was made for, and is still housed in, the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. Originally, it was meant to be seven separate panels around the church; however, Caravaggio combined all seven works of mercy in one composition which became the church's altarpiece. Samson (second from the left) drinks water from the jawbone of an ass. American art historian John Spike notes that the choice of Samson as an emblem of Giving Drink to the Thirsty is so peculiar as to demand some explanation. The fearsome scourge of the Philistines was a deeply flawed man who accomplished his heroic tasks through the grace of God. When Samson was in danger of dying of thirst, God gave him water to drink. It is difficult to square this miracle with an allegory of the Seven Acts of Mercy since it was not in fact the work of human charity.

The titular six other works/acts of mercy are represented in the painting as follows: Bury the dead, in the background, two men carry a dead man (of whom only the feet are visible); Visit the imprisoned, and Feed the hungry, on the right, a woman visits an imprisoned deputy and gives him milk from her breast; Shelter the homeless, a pilgrim (third from left, as identified by the shell in his hat) asks an innkeeper (at far left) for shelter; Clothe the naked, St. Martin of Tours, fourth from the left, has torn his robe in half and given it to the naked beggar in the foreground, recalling the saint's popular legend; and Visit the sick, St. Martin greets and comforts the beggar who is a cripple.


6. Visible in the background of this scene is the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti in Rome, an allusion to the necessity - then as now - of helping the needy and offering refreshment to the thirsty.


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1. Annibal Carrache was one of the first great masters to show an interest in genre scenes. In The Bean Eater, it is clear that wine had become a part of daily peasant life by the end of the 16th century. The scene is probably set in a cabaret.

2. In this work by the Le Nain brothers, we enter the peasants’ home and catch one of the householders with a glass of red wine (Peasant Family in an Interior). These country workers are “decently dressed and shod”. They are not badly-off, and drink wine every day.

4. From the 17th century to the first half of the 20th century, wine became a key element in family meals. It plays a role in this meal being prepared by this Old Woman Cooking Eggs.

7. There was a severe food shortage in 1816 and 1817, and this brought poverty and hence social problems that the authorities could no longer cope with. The birth rate of illegitimate children rose drastically because most of the people were not by law permitted to marry owing to their financial circumstances. The number of orphans and semi-orphans with no parents to care for them also rose drastically.

Against that background the charm with which Waldmüller has invested his children here must be seen as glossing over reality. Only the realists of the following generation dared to represent conditions in their truly fearful state.

8. Alphonse Legros’s The Meal of the Poor gives us a complete change of scene. The artist lived for a time in London, where wine was considered a refreshing tonic. The price of wine had fallen drastically, and it was served with the most modest meals.

10. This Oyster Eater is one of the snapshots from the life of the small-town bourgeoisie painted by James Ensor. It was his intention to enter it in the 1882 edition of the three-yearly art exhibition in Antwerp, but the organizers rejected it. They considered this work was too much unconventional and provocative. In its day, this seemingly innocent scene caused quite a stir. To many, the image of a single woman enjoying the good things in life - fine wine and oysters - was inappropriate, all the more so as oysters were seen as an aphrodisiac (source: KMSKA, Antwerp).

12. Van Gogh depicts the ‘workers’ restaurant’ of the Hôtel Carrel, where he had lodged before moving to the famous ‘yellow house’. There was a single set menu, wine included.

17. Against the backdrop of the 1929 crash, Hopper’s painting reflects the evolution of social mores: not only do women work now, as shown by the cashier and the waitress, but they are also welcomed as customers. Restaurants advertising “Ladies’ Tables” attract female clients, often working women still new to such independence and mobility.  They are assured that they can dine alone in these places without automatically being suspected of being prostitutes on the prowl.

“Using sketches and detailed notes, Hopper carefully depicts the careful presentation of the dishes on offer, the wood tinted with cherry-coloured varnish, the tiled floor, the smartly-dressed waitress and the vulgar colours of cheap restaurants. Despite these warm – even flashy – colours, and despite the bright lighting, the scene is not particularly festive.” (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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Wine has always been considered good for the health. Hippocrates, Greek father of modern medicine, considered that “wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and for the ailing man.” In the 13th century, Arnaud de Villeneuve was happy to observe that “wine is marvelous for melancholics, choleric and cardiac cases, and for those with liver, bladder, circulation and especially artery problems. It relieves brutal rises in temperature.”

2. In his Birth of Saint John the Baptist, fashionably painted in a contemporary setting, Domenico Ghirlandaio shows that young mothers were given wine after childbirth.  The Renaissance art historian and painter Giorgio Vasari describes the work in his famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, considered the first modern European art history book: “While Saint Elizabeth is in bed being visited by neighbours, the wet-nurse feeding the child, a woman gaily asks to hold him, to show to the others the fruit of Elizabeth’s old age. We can see a pretty country girl bringing in fruit and wine, according to Florentine custom.” The wine was supposed to replace lost blood and cleanse organs damaged by childbirth. This practice lasted until the 19th century.


In Switzerland, in the Valais region, the ‘cure’ continued until the ‘relevailles’ ceremony, a Catholic blessing given to new mothers by a priest. A kind of purification act, it was derived from a Jewish custom whereby mothers would come to the temple forty days after giving birth to a son (eighty days for a daughter).

5. Henri d'Albret wanted his daughter to produce a male heir. In line with tradition, The Birth of Henri IV shows the future French king being placed into his grandfather’s arms and presented to the Court. One of the courtesans is shown holding a tray with a small bottle of Jurançon wine and a clove of garlic. He takes the baby into his chamber, rubbing the garlic against the newborn’s lips and making him breathe in the wine.

The ‘Béarnaise baptism’ was a widespread tradition ; the wine was thought to prevent illness and the garlic was believed to keep away evil spirits. This type of blessing at royal births lasted for centuries.

6. At the start of the 19th century, wine was considered “a tonic, a very powerful cordial” (Littré, 1801). In his Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, a gravely ill Goya takes a remedy from his friend. It appears to be a glass of wine, probably sherry.

7. By 1863, the French wine trade was suffering badly from an outbreak of disease in the crop. The English complained to Napoleon III, who tasked Louis Pasteur with investigating the problem. A specialist in the processes of fermentation and putrefaction, Pasteur moved his laboratory to Arbois, in the wine-producing Jura region. He shared his conclusions with the Académie des Sciences in 1865, affirming that “wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Pasteur’s report was published by the Imperial Press in 1866, under the title of Studies on Wine. Until recently, wine was often prescribed by medical professionals.


8. It is for this reason that we can see a litre of white wine alongside a carafe of water and a phial of medicine on the nightstand of Félix Valloton’s The Patient. She is Valloton’s mistress, who suffered from severe migraines.

9. Gaston Derys’ book My Doctor, Wine?* extols the many joys and benefits of wine through comments of French doctors*. Many watercolours by Raoul Dufy are used to illustrate this defence of wine as remedy. Here we are in the hospital. A nursing sister of yesteryear enters the flower-filled room carrying a tray, on which is placed a bottle of champagne. Too good to be true? The painting features in a chapter describing the benefits of wine in convalescence.

A professor said: "Many patients, convalescents, and sufferers from exhaustion who stuff themselves with pills, powders, and tablets would find an old Bordeaux to be a faster remedy to recuperate their strength." In another chapter, several doctors were interviewed about obesity. One of them wrote that "wine is a treatment for obesity...  Water tends to thicken the flesh. Indeed, fat is formed and intervenes in water drinkers, to neutralize the poisons deriving from food that are not destroyed by internal secretions... The wine augments the body's defences, allowing a stronger resistance to autointoxication, depression, and obesity." !**

* Published in English by Yale University Press, 2003 (French text originally published in 1936, during the viticulture crisis). Gaston Derys is a pseudonym for Gaston Colomb, who, under many aliases, was a prolific writer and well-known French gastronome.

** Today, the discussion has become more precise and scientific. But is it any less controversial? A former hospital practitioner has not only declared red wine an effective protection against cardiovascular disease – adding that abstinence is actually harmful – but also that it helps to prevent arteriosclerosis, being a powerful antioxidant and vasodilator. Red wine is said to be especially good for the circulation: lab tests have shown the polyphenol extracts of red wine may work in cases where prescription anticoagulants have little effect. It is also thought, among other things, to combat hypertension and to reduce damage to the myocardium and aorta by extending the life of the heart and arteries’ muscle cells. Regular, moderate red wine consumption is linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Last but not least, as red wine allows for longer cell life, it even possesses ‘anti-cancer properties’! Too good to be true? Judge for yourself: just remember that, as these very doctors might say, alcohol is to be enjoyed in moderation… 


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2. The sheet of writing paper and writing utensils on the desk suggest that this young woman wishes to put something down on paper. But what? She seems uncertain about the subject matter, and so she takes a sip of wine. In Ter Borch’s time, drinking alcohol was considered a sign of loose moral conduct, especially for women. It is therefore certainly no coincidence that an ornate bed decorated with a canopy and curtains appears in the background. In fact, the painter’s sister, a poet, recommended wine as an effective remedy for love’s disappointments! It would therefore be conceivable that the young woman is about to formulate a response to a lover, and that she would like to take a sip of courage first. Her inkwell and quill are ready and waiting (Source : Städel Museum, Francfort).



7-8. Although the theme of working life in painting was well-established in Holland as far back as the 17th century, this was not the case in France, where the topic was considered unworthy. It was not until the 18th century that painters began to portray unromanticized laboring scenes. It was also during this period that cheap red wines began to make their way into the market. They were consumed by laborers at work, as a refreshment, a tonic, and an encouragement. Both male and female workers drank wine in this way, be they Gustave Caillebotte’s Floor Scrapers or Edgar Degas’ Women Ironing. Shown in the middle of the working day, the two exhausted laundry workers reflect the unromantic but tender attitude of the artist towards his working-class subjects. The image is incisive, but unpitying. Gestures emerge with a rare expressive force implying immediacy – the woman on the left yawns and stretches, holding in her hand a bottle of wine, while her colleague hunches doggedly over her work.



9. Toulouse-Lautrec conjured up similar themes in his portrayals of women. A regular of the brothels of Montmartre, Toulouse-Lautrec had lodgings at La Fleur Blanche. This permitted him to capture similar stress and exhaustion in the women of These Ladies in the Refectory, set in the prostitutes’ dining room. A bottle, given by the madam of the house, was intended to restore the girls’ enthusiasm for their work!

10. Marzella, neuf ans, est vautrée sur le canapé vert de la "Alte Brauerei", où les peintres de la Brücke* ont pris leurs quartiers à Moritzburg. Pour la fille d'ouvriers de la vieille cité de Dresde qui accompagne les artistes, il s'agit manifestement d'un après-midi ennuyeux. Quelques bouteilles de vin, à même le parquet, témoignent des soirées des artistes qui se détendent lorsqu'ils ont terminé leur "travail libre fanatique" d'après les corps nus. Marzella, l'enfant à l'état de nature, incarne un idéal de la Brücke, l'utopie de liberté et de retour aux sources, un mélange d'érotisme et d'exotisme. Elle est présentée ici comme une "artiste", signe d'un esprit antibourgeois que les peintres admirent (Source : Ulrike Lorenz, Brücke, Taschen). 

11. A little treat after a long working day.

14. The newspaper on the table is presumably reporting the recent events of the war. La victoire en Europe semble de plus en plus proche et chez le peuple britannique le soulagement finit par l'emporter sur l'anxiété, comme chez cet homme à l'air détendu et au sourire chaleureux.

*  Die Brücke (Le Pont) est un groupe d'artistes allemands expressionnistes formé à Dresde en 1905. Die Brücke veut détruire les vieilles conventions. Selon Kirchner, il ne faut pas s'imposer de règles. L'inspiration doit couler librement afin de donner l'immédiateté de l'expression selon les émotions et la conscience subjective de l'artiste, encourageant ainsi un dessin rapide, des couleurs vives, pures ou peu mélangées. Le groupe se préoccupe moins des aspects formels, le séparant ainsi du fauvisme de Matisse ou Braque. Pour ces Allemands, le contenu est plus important que la forme.

Le vin ‘Comforting’ wine was also given to the poilus, French soldiers of the First World War. Wine imagery from this period is almost non-existent, and usually of very poor quality – even those images made to a commercial aim (by alcohol manufacturers), are very much below par. Nevertheless, there still exist some good-quality posters, photographs, drawings and engravings from this time.

Explore the posters  >>


Sodoma Come_benedetto_spezza_col_segno_della_croce_uno_bicchiere_avvelenato.jpg
Zurbaran Saint Benedict Met.jpg

La règle bénédictine a été écrite en 530 au monastère du Mont Cassin par Benoît de Nursie (Saint Benoît). Elle a pour objectif de donner un cadre à la vie de ses disciples : organisation de la liturgie, du travail, des repas... qui provient de sa propre expérience d'abbé. Cette règle est généralement considérée comme un chef d’œuvre d’équilibre, à la foi souple et précise, entre les temps de prière, travail, sommeil, études et repas. Elle est caractérisée par sa "discrétion", son souci de ne pas faire peser sur les disciples un joug trop contraignant. Il en est ainsi pour l''usage du vin : "... chaque homme a reçu de Dieu son don de grâce, l'un d'une manière, l'autre d'une autre... en tenant compte des besoins des faibles, nous estimons qu'une hémine* de vin suffit chaque jour à chacun de notre communauté." 

1 (à gauche). Les Scènes de la vie de saint Benoît nous montrent l'abbé prenant ses repas avec ses disciples et comment "il obtient de la farine en abondance et restaure les moines" (Scène 30, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi dit Le Sodoma, c. 1505 - Abbaye de Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Asciano, Toscane, Italie). En haut à gauche, Benoît fait un miracle en faisant apparaître les sacs de farine, montrant aux moines que les provisions ne manqueront pas, à un moment où la Campanie traverse une période de famine. En bas à droite, les moines sont rassemblés dans le réfectoire du couvent, dont la porte est surmontée par une Crucifixion.  Selon l'usage, ils observent le silence cependant qu'un des leurs lit les Ecritures à haute voix. Devant chaque moine, sur la nappe blanche, sont déposés deux poissons, du pain et un verre de vin. Au premier plan, Le Sodoma compose une anecdote autour de trois personnages : le frère qui sert la communauté observe en souriant le moine assis au bas-bout de la table, qui subtilise discrètement le pain de son voisin, à la surprise de celui-ci. queront pas. 


* 0,274 litre, mesure de la Rome antique, ce qui correspond à deux vins au verre dans un restaurant.

2 (au centre). Avec la scène 10 des fresques de l'abbaye de Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Le Sodoma, c. 1505), "Benoît brise un verre de vin empoisonné en faisant le signe de croix." A gauche, le réfectoire où les moines, qui commencent à se repentir d'avoir choisi le trop rigoureux saint Benoît comme abbé, lui ont présenté un verre de vin empoisonné. Mais c'était sans compter sur l'Esprit Saint ! En récitant le bénédicité au-dessus du breuvage, Saint Benoît fait éclater le verre, au grand dam des moines. Au centre, par la porte du couloir qui mène aux cuisines et sur le seuil de laquelle un chat blanc observe la scène, on voit deux moines qui choisissent les plantes qui vont être utilisées pour empoisonner leur abbé. Un troisième se tient sur le seuil de la cuisine, prêt à préparer le breuvage. A droite, saint Benoît, nu-pieds, reprend son bâton de marche et quitte le monastère.



3 (à droite). Avec son Saint Benoît, Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640/45, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) reprend la légende du vin empoisonné. Le verre de vin y est remplacé par une jarre de vin qui va se briser alors que le saint la bénit. Benoît réapparaît en train de prier dans le paysage rocheux de l'arriète-plan.


Visite d'un médecin, Jan Steen, c. 1665/68 - Mauritshuis, La Haye, Pays-Basc. Cis 2.jpg

Certain works lend themselves to different interpretations by art historians, which is more than understandable. But for Jan Steen’s The Doctor’s Visit (1665/68), two opposing views appear on the very website of the Mauritshuis (The Hague, Netherlands), where the painting is kept! First we are told that the doctor is shown being served a glass of wine by a servant; that the female patient is probably suffering from a “wandering womb”, a condition primarily affecting young virgins which was taken very seriously at the time; and that the position of the dogs in the stairwell [editor’s note: they are sniffing each other] indicates to us the remedy: that the girl should find herself a husband as soon as possible.

The very detailed text beneath, however (taken from a catalogue referencing many works from Steen and others on the same subject) explains that the sick girl’s chest is half-uncovered and that she is turning towards the “doctor”, who is sitting beside her holding his gloves as though he has only just arrived. No doubt about his diagnosis: the patient is suffering from “love-sickness”.

“As always in the work of Jan Steen, the doctor is dressed in old-fashioned clothes, indicating that he is no real doctor, but a ridiculous charlatan instead. What can he do, when a Dutch proverb says “medicine won’t help when love’s to blame”? His attention is caught by the girl standing over him, proffering a glass of wine. She is wearing a very elegant dress under her apron – she is only pretending to be a servant. She holds out a glass of wine to be administered to the patient as a medicine [editor’s note: as a painkiller or a tranquilliser?] but it seems more likely that the wine will be drunk by the doctor himself [refreshment or seduction?].


Le Sorcier ou Le Magicien (Autoportrait avec quatre bras), René Magritte, 1952 - Collection particulière

In The Magician (Self-Portrait with Four Arms, 1952, private collection), Magritte transforms a familiar, everyday scene into a strange and intriguing image. Is it as it seems – the picture of a man in a hurry (like the protagonist of Paul Morand’s novel, published ten years earlier) wolfing down his lunch, or is he just hungry and thirsty?
By multiplying the body’s possibilities, Magritte the surrealist “shows us how [as in all his works] painting can stand between visible reality and imaginary depiction.” (Source: Magritte, Marcel Paquet, Taschen, Cologne). This mischievous Magician breaks the rules, creating a universe of visual humour, paradox and surprise. The result is direct, disconcerting, funny and troubling. It pushes us beyond the visible, towards “that which is hidden by that which we see.” Magritte goes beyond appearances and lends an element of mystery to the real world: “I ensure that, as far as possible, I only work on paintings which create mystery with the precision and enchantment necessary to the life of ideas.”


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A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors. 


Find out more: Wine in Illuminations, from Drinking to Savoir-boire >>


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The ‘Muses’ companion’, wine is present across the artistic spectrum, be it in literature, music, decorative or fine arts. Wine is an essential witness to our social and cultural history. Although the Virtual Wine Museum is mainly concerned with painting at present, some examples drawn from other artistic formats permit us to illustrate the universal role of wine, to ‘bear witness’ to it. A few examples of non-painted works on the same theme as this gallery: Goya’s A Man Drinking from a Wineskin (ink drawing); a section from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror’s invasion of England; La Table Servie, Niepce’s second photograph; and the photo-portrait of a Champagne Wine-Grower in Marne by Cartier-Bresson.


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