Saturday, May 3, 2014

John Everett Millais: The Foolish Virgins (conclusion)

John Everett Millais, The Foolish Virgins
This post concludes the exegesis from a “Portraits of Jesus” student paper on the engravings of John Everett Millais’s portraying the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. In this section, the paper focuses on The Foolish Virgins:

Progressing through the parable we come to The Foolish Virgins. This print represents the point in the story at 25:11 when the foolish bridesmaids come to the door of the wedding banquet and are begging to be let in. Though there is contrast between light and dark within it, as a whole it is much darker than The Wise Virgins.

What does the appearance of the maidens show and how can this be related to the text in terms of its allegory? The shape and movement of the bodies lying and collapsing against the door is dramatic. The door frame provides a straight line to contrast against their movement up from the ground, towards the light held by the only standing virgin. It is like they are gathering up toward the light as well as resting against the door. The necklace and their loose hair could both symbolize lack of morality through vanity or impurity, or just a general sinfulness. What is the significance of the maiden wearing the necklace, who in the other print was sleeping, and is now holding a lit lamp, even though it is too late? She could represent the leader of the foolish virgins as false disciples as discussed in the textual exegesis: in the previous illustration it could be argued that she was the most inattentive and unprepared—in the context that Millais attributed certain moral value to the sleepiness—and now she strives the hardest to appear faithful.

In their expressions and body language they show pleading, grief, and fear. Of the three who have collapsed against the door, two appear to be praying or pleading with their “Lord.” One has her face downcast in and her hands clasped above her, while the other has her hands at her neck and her face lifted to the sky. The third looks away from the door to the banquet and to the elements behind them, seeming to have lost hope.

What is the significance of the appearance of scene, the physical landscape to which the virgins belong? It is night now; as the mood and gravity of the situation has increased from the previous illustration, the sky has accordingly darkened. Millais adds the stormy weather to the scene, which is not present in the text. Thunder and lightning and rain present an elemental punishment harkening back to the God of the Old Testament. This serves to heighten the eschatological meaning of the story and therefore the desperate situation of the foolish maidens in the eschaton. The rain is straight and diagonal in their direction. The scene is clearly forested whereas in the earlier scene there were no trees visible. In the Western psyche the forest has long symbolized waywardness, being lost. It is apart from what is civilized and familiar and good: a moral wilderness. It is my belief that Millais reflects this symbolism here. The figures of the trees also make the landscape more imposing on the bridesmaids. Whereas the natural landscape does not have much prominence in The Wise Virgins, with the wise almost rising above it in a way through their association with the sky, here it is encroaching on the foolish women, towering in the background with the trees and lightening (coming from heaven) and crashing down on them in the foreground with the rain and wind. Violent weather and natural disaster commonly demonstrates the physical end of the earth that is thought to accompany the last judgment.

As in The Wise Virgins, there are two major directional points of focus in this illustration. Not only is the maidens’ focus on the door and the banquet within, but also one bridesmaid looks nervously back at the elements, directing focus away from their (lost) hope and to their hopeless future. These dual points of focus in the scene in its allegorical context are the loss of hope for salvation and the fear of impending punishment, the final judgment.

As a whole the engravings exhibit obvious dualism with light and dark, both within and between them. They both contain meaningful movement. Neither portrays the bridegroom directly, but they suggest the presence and influence of him indirectly through the physical orientation of the maidens and the direction of light. In both paintings there is a dual focus on what is behind and what is to come, portrayed both in light and in the physicality of the maidens.

Millais distinguishes between the wise and foolish in more ways than the text does, which is understandable for a visual representation. He does so in terms of appearance and action. He gives the sleeping of the virgins a negative moral significance in a way that the text does not, but links it to the unpreparedness that the parable stresses as the fatal flaw of the bridesmaids. The argument that the foolish virgins represent false disciples within the early Christian community would not find conflict in these illustrations.

Millais departs from and makes additions to the text in several ways, crafting his own meanings that are simple, strikingly visual, and are still largely in keeping with the allegory and message of the parable. It is over 1,700 years after the parable was first told, containing symbolic meanings that were particularly relevant to the concerns of Matthew’s audience in the early church, and yet he is able to impart his own degree of depth to the story.

Many thanks to my student for letting me share this work on Millais. 

Now that the exegetical papers and final exams are graded for the "Portraits of Jesus" class, I'll continue next week with my series on John Chrsyostom and the parables.

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