Sunday, November 12, 2017

Picturing the Parables: The Wise and the Foolish Virgins

The Wise and Foolish Virgins
From a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 31v
“Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
'Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.'
But the wise ones replied,
'No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.'
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!'
But he said in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.'
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour."
(Matthew 25:1-13, Gospel for the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Year A cycle, is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  In it the Gospel writer, Matthew, is issuing a warning for those with ears to hear.  This rather amusing story seems on the surface to describe a situation akin to one during an emergency in the modern world, in which one neighbor discovers that he is out of batteries and begs his more prudent neighbor to give him some of his.

However, what Matthew is actually describing is the end of things, both at the personal level of each person’s life and at the universal level of the end of the world.   The last sentence reminds us to “stay awake, for you know neither the day not the hour”.    Hopefully, each person will imitate the wise virgins, who were ready when the bridegroom arrived, and not the foolish ones who found themselves wanting at the decisive moment and, arriving late to the party, were denied admission.  For the Bridegroom is Christ and the wedding feast is eternal life and the oil for the lamps represents our level of preparation for the moment of our death.
 
Master of Edward IV, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
From Vita Christi
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1487-1490
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 894, fol. 233v
Here the wise virgins are shown already in the banqueting house, with their lamps alight, while the improvident foolish ones
find themselves locked out.
Artists have been depicting this parable since medieval times, but over time there has been a subtle change in what the works of art are saying.  In the earlier centuries, the women are simply presented as having lighted lamps or having lamps that are empty of oil.  Quite often the division is reinforced by showing the wise virgins wearing crowns, while the foolish ones are bare headed.  Also, the lamps of the foolish are frequently shown pointing down, indicating that they are empty.
 
The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Single Leaf from a Psalter
English (Canterbury), c. 1155-1160
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 521v
The Foolish Virgins
German, c. 1245
Magdeburg, Cathedral
The foolish virgins lament their empty lamps.  I particularly appreciate the gesture of the second from the left.  

The Wise Virgins
German, c. 1245
Magdeburg, Cathedral
Meanwhile, the wise virgins appear to be happy with their situation.

Wise and Foolish Virgins
From Speculum humanae salvationis
German, 15th Century
The Hugue, Meermano Museum
MS 10 C 23, fol. 44r
The foolish virgins raise their hands in a gesture of despair as they hold their empty lamps downward.

Claes Brouwer, the Alexander Master, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijl Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38 II, fol. 184v

Hektor Mullich and Georg Mullich, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
From s German Textual Miscellany
German, c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 782,fol. 75r

The Foolish Virgins Beg for Oil from the Wise Virgins
From the Egmont Breviary
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 87, fol. 331r

However, in the fifteenth century, artists began to focus more on the implications of the story for the foolish virgins, those who were unready for the arrival of the bridegroom.  In a page from a collection of manuscript pages associated with the Carthusian order now in the British Library and dated to around 1425, we see the bridegroom, Christ, in His castle with His bride (the Church).  Angels lead the wise virgins, with their lighted lamps, to heaven, while one of the angels bars the foolish, with their empty lamps, with a sword. 
The Wise and Foolish Virgins
From The Carthusian Miscellany
English, c. 1425-1475
London, British Library
MS Additional 37049, fol. 80v
These implications are made even more explicit in a Flemish painting from about 1450 which combines the story of the wise and foolish virgins with the Last Judgment.  Each group stands in front of the group to which they will belong.  The wise virgins are placed below the group of the saved and are being guided by an angel to reach that group.  The foolish virgins are placed in front of the damned and turn sadly away as they realize where they must go.
Last Judgment With the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Flemish, c. 1450-1480
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

A 1469 manuscript depicting the wise and foolish virgins flanking a scene of the Crucifixion is a bit more ambiguous, implying that the foolish ones might still have a chance at salvation through the Blood of Christ.
Workshop of Diebold Lauber, Crucifixion with the Wise and Foolish Virgins
From the Tale of Barlaam and Josaphat
Alsatian, 1469
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig XV, fol. 90v

An engraving made by Philips Galle after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder sometime around 1550 continues the theme of the parable related to the end of times, but also looks forward to what would become the central theme of painters in the future.  In the foreground the two groups spend their waiting time in very different activities.  The wise diligently work hard at activities related to the wool trade.  They card and spin and embroider, while their foolish counterparts spend their time idly in dancing and playing music, while their lamps lie empty.  In the middle ground an angel appears holding a banner which says "Behold, the bridegroom is coming!   Go out to meet him!” (Matthew 25:6).  In the background Christ, the Bridegroom, welcomes the souls of the wise to heaven, while on the other side of the image, the souls of the foolish face a closed door.  On the side of the steps leading to the closed door are the words “I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).  At the bottom of the image are the words with which the foolish begged the wise for some oil, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out”, as well as the reply of the wise “'No, for there may not be enough for us and you”.  (Matthew 25:8-9)
Phillips Galle after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Flemish, c. 1550-1563
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bruegel’s reference to the end of times is a bit of an outlier at this point, for around 1500 the favored scene had changed for artists.  They no longer pointed openly to the eternal implications of the parable, but seemed to assume that it was understood.  Instead, they began to focus first on the acceptance or rejection of each group by the Bridegroom and then on the ways in which the two groups spent the hours during which they waited for the Bridegroom. 
Lambert Zutman, called Lambert Suavius III
The Parable of the Wise Virgins
Flemish, c. 1530
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Cabinet des dessins

Ceramic Plaque with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Austrian, c. 1550-1600
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts


























Jacopo Tintoretto, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Italian, c. 1546
Banbury, Warwickshire (UK), Upton House
The foolish plead for admission and are refused by the Bridegroom/Christ, who stands looking down from the balcony.
These themes were particularly popular in the Netherlands, both Southern (under Spanish rule at the time and now known as Belgium) and Northern (provinces which had broken away from Spain and had formed the Dutch Republic).  Several families of artists made this one of their frequent themes, such as the Francken family and the Lisaert family.
Jan Collaert I After Ambrosius Francken, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens historias atque miracula do[mi] ni nostri Iesu Christi
Flemish, 1585
London,  British Museum
On the left side of the image, the wise virgins diligently concentrate on keeping their lamps filled with oil as they wait.  On the right side, the foolish spend their waiting time in idle pursuits, their lamps empty and time forgotten.  In the background, Francken still included the ultimate fate of each group.  The wise welcomed by the Risen Christ, while the foolish face a closed door.
Hieronymous Francken II, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Flemish, c. 1600
Private Collection
In this image the foolish are given more prominence than the wise, who remain in the right background.  Once senses that this Francken may have felt more friendly toward the foolish virgins than usual as their pursuits are given more of the picture surface.
Hieronymous Francken II, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Flemish, c. 1616
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Pieter Lisaert III, The Foolish Virgins and the Wise Virgins
Flemish, c. 1590-1600
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Pieter Lisaert IV, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Flemish, c. 1600
Private Collection
Jan Saenredam, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Dutch, 1605
London, British Museum
While the Bridegroom welcomes the first three wise the last two tell the foolish to go to the merchants for oil.
Jan Saenradam, The Foolish Virgins Refused Entry
Dutch, 1606
Chicago, Art Institute
The foolish return from their buying trip to find the doors closed and the terrible words of the Bridegroom issuing from the window above it "Amen dico vobis, nescio vos".  In the far right background we can see the scene of welcome created by Saenradam in the engraving above.
Other artists depicted the moment of conflict in which the foolish begged the wise for some of their oil and the prudent wise refused to share in case they too would be unready for the arrival of the Bridegroom.
Harmen Janszoon Muller After Gerard van Groeningen, The Wise Tell the Foolish to Get Oil from the Merchants
Dutch, c. 1565-1572
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In France the subject was treated in a new way by the engraver Abraham Bosse, who published a well-known series of engravings called Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles in 1635.  In this series Bosse published scenes showing the manner in which each group spent the time awaiting the Bridegroom.  The foolish virgins play cards, or play musical instruments or study their reflections in the mirror.  They snooze before the fire.
Abraham Bosse, The Foolish Virgins Conversing
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Abraham Bosse, The Foolish Virgins Sleeping
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Meanwhile, the wise virgins spend their time in earnest discussion of religious topics and are, therefore, alert to the arrival of the Bridegroom.
Abraham Bosse, The Wise Virgins Conversing
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In another image from the series, the two groups meet and the wise refuse to give their oil to the foolish, telling them to go away and buy it.
Abraham Bosse, The Wise Virgins Refuse Oil to the Foolish Virgins
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is interesting that Bosse underlines the differences between the groups in terms of fashion.  The wise virgins are modestly dressed, the shoulders and bosoms of their dresses are covered by large, plain white linen collars.  The foolish follow the current court fashion of exposed shoulders and low cut decolletage.  

While the foolish are trying to make up for their oversight, the Bridegroom arrives and welcomes the wise to the wedding feast.
Abraham Bosse, The Wise Virgins Before Christ
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The final image in the series shows the disconsolate foolish virgins, returned from their errand, only to be locked out of the banqueting hall.
Abraham Bosse, The Foolish Virgins Denied Admission
From Les Vierges sages et les vierges folles
French, c. 1635
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
These interpretations remain the standard images associated with this parable until well into the nineteenth century.

Robert de Baudous After Pieter Feddes van Harlingen, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Dutch, c. 1650
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Domenico Piola, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Italian, c. 1680-1700
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy of Art and
Architecture on Loan to the Scottish National Museums

Caspar Luyken, The Wise Virgins and the Bridegroom
Dutch, 1708
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Godfried Schalcken, The Wise and Foolish Virgins
Dutch, c. 1700
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Jan Luyken, The Foolish Virgins Beg for Oil from the Wise
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Francesco Zuccarelli, The Wise Virgins Are Ready to Greet the Bridegroom
Italian, 1728
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Francesco Fontebasso, The Bridegroom and the Foolish Virgins
Italian, c. 1760
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

William Blake, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
English, c. 1799-1800
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
William Etty, The Foolish Virgins
English, c. 1830-1849
Dundee (UK), University of Dundee Fine Arts Collections

Wilhelm von Schadow, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
German, c. 1850-1862
Frankfurt-am-Main,  Staedel Museum
The last few images made, shortly before 1900, have a different outlook.  They tend to depict the scene stripped of its relation to the end of the world and are, instead, more focused on the natural level of the story.

James Tissot, The  Wise Virgins
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, The Foolish Virgins
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
In the pictures by Tissot we see the wise virgins who, though they have fallen asleep, have sufficient oil to keep their lamps brightly lit and the foolish virgins rushing back to the house with the oil they have purchased.  We know they will be too late, but they do not.
William John Wainwright, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
English, 1899
Birmingham (UK), Birmingham Museums Trust
Wainwright presents his picture from the point of view of the Bridegroom.  The wise virgins are shown with their lighted lamps and the additional jug of oil they had prudently brought with them.  In the back, the foolish react to the discovery that they are unprepared for His arrival.

Interest in the story has continued into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, although interpreted in ways that represent the era in which they were made, being more abstract than the earlier images.  However, copyright issues prevent me from including some of these images.

© M. Duffy, 2017

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


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