Thursday, May 1, 2014

John Everett Millais, The Wise Virgins

John Everett Millais, The Wise Virgins
I'm in the middle of grading final exams, but I this post consists, as noted previously, from a student’s exegetical paper on the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. This post excerpts the paper's discussion of John Everett Millais's engraving, The Wise Virgins:


Millais’ The Wise Virgins and The Foolish Virgins are a set of two sketches that were made into wood engravings and printed on paper, appearing as illustrations for The Parables of Our Lord, engraved and printed in 1864 by the Dalziel Brothers. I think that in this context it is fair to say that these prints would have to be clear and iconic enough to appeal to a general audience but also significantly symbolic and nuanced in order to satisfy Millais himself as an artist.

Working chronologically in terms of the text, we will first consider The Wise Virgins. This print represents the point in the story at 25:8 when the “foolish” maidens are requesting oil from the “wise” just as the call has been raised for the arrival of the bridegroom. According to the text, this scene should take place at midnight, but Millais has decided to portray the scene in daylight. The direction of light that can be seen on the figures suggests that it would be around sunset. Despite containing large areas of shadow it is much brighter than its companion print, The Foolish Virgins. It contains three major elements of the parable including the sleeping of the virgins, the arrival of the bridegroom, and the request of the foolish virgins.

In a departure from the text, the two groups of young women seem to be distinguished from each other in terms of outward appearance. Those who are supposedly the wise virgins—their lamps are burning—have their hair tied up, perhaps symbolizing a prudence and pragmatism that correlates with the foresight of their actions. While in contrast those who are laying down and those who are making an appeal to the wise, presumably the foolish virgins, have their hair loose, possibly symbolizing sinfulness through impurity, or perhaps simply serving as a physical manifestation of their unpreparedness. The faces and attire of all of the virgins seem relatively similar. Aside from the hair, the only noticeable difference is that the virgin lying in the foreground in the bottom right corner of the frame is wearing a necklace.

It seems that Millais has given moral significance to the sleeping, as the only maidens sleeping are two of the foolish. Not that the sleeping itself is represented as bad, but that the foolish take longer to get up, adding to the significance of preparedness. Interestingly, “Millais frequently painted pictures showing young women outdoors. The girl lying in the foreground of this illustration resembles the figure in his painting Spring (1857). In Spring, however, the girl lies beneath a scythe, symbolizing the passing of youth and beauty” (Tate).

Another interesting factor in this print is the attachment of the figures to the setting and their relative positions within the frame. The billowing movement of the dresses of the wise bridesmaids, along with the clouds in the background and the movement of the smoke from the upheld lantern brings them closer to the sky, to the kingdom of heaven and godly things. All of these elements are joined by the direction of the light pouring in from the horizon. There is also a visible wind, evident in the movement of the dresses of the maidens standing at the front of the party. Two of the foolish virgins are lying down: presumably the others were sleeping but have now gotten up. In contrast to the wise bridesmaids these maidens are associated with the ground, the earth, the realm of temporal things. Furthermore the foolish virgins are all on the margins of the scene. They are surrounded by shadows while the wise are embraced by the light. They all seem to be oriented in a general direction toward a spot down the hill and towards the setting sun, looking at what must be the coming of the bridegroom.

In this representation, what is the relationship of the wise and foolish virgins to each other? In the text we are not told very much about their relationship, but Millais contributes to the narrative with the nuance of visual representation. The wise virgin who is reaching down to touch the elbow of a foolish virgin creates meaningful movement between the two groups. Perhaps Millais wanted to portray more compassion between the two groups of women than is evident in the text. Even though the wise virgins cannot do much to help the foolish virgins (otherwise the allegory would not work too well), they still appear sympathetic. There are three major points of connection between them. First is the wise woman who is bending down, her arm extending out to that of her foolish companion, and yet her focus is not on the other woman, but in the direction of the light and the approaching bridegroom who is not visible to us. She also does not take notice of the disturbance behind her. A second point of contact involves the wise virgin at the center of the print, who seems to stand out not only as physically central but morally central among the group. Perhaps, as the one who the foolish have directed their appeal toward, she is a leader among the wise. As three of the foolish appeal to her, her eyes connect with them, slightly downcast, portraying sympathy and even sadness. She has turned back from the general focus of the wise to give her attention to her sisters. And for a third point of contact there is the wise woman standing among two other wise at the “front” of the party facing the approach, who has diverted her attention from the coming of the bridegroom and is looking back in interest and concern at what is going on.

The next post will excerpt the section of the paper on The Foolish Virgins by Millais.

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