Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Millais and the Parables: Persistent Widow (p. 3)

Millais's representation of the Persistent Widow / Unjust Judge is one of his best images on the parables: 

Photo taken at the Tate Britain, London

In this image, the judge sits with his legs crossed at the ankles on a throne-like cushioned chair. The judge wears fine clothes, pointed slippers, and an apparently bejeweled hat. His right hand pushes the woman away, and his left hand is upraised, in effect telling her to stop, that he has heard enough, and that his answer is no. His head turns away from her, and his face reflects his haughty, superior disdain for her; he smiles or perhaps even derisively laughs at her desperate pleas.

The woman kneels by his feet on the right side of his chair, her hands clasped in supplication, and her right arm reaches over the judge’s right knee. Her face reveals her humble pleas, and her eyes remain steadily focused on the unjust judge, a hint that she will persevere, no matter how much the judge mocks or ignores her.

The faces are what stand out the most in the image, especially the mocking, contemptuous dismissal of the woman reflected in the judge’s face, and the pleading, desperate yet insistent face of the woman for whom the judge is her last recourse. There is no sign yet that the judge will relent, but the woman will not be deterred, even with the guard trying to drag her away in light of the judge’s dismissal of her. She kneels alone, with no one, it appears, willing to help her or to take her side, which accentuates her isolation and desperation. 

In the foreground, on the right side, we see a secretary sitting on a cushion on the floor just to the left of the judge’s chair. He holds a tablet on his lap and a writing instrument in his right hand. He looks up at the woman expectantly and, perhaps, sympathetically, an emotion lacking from most of the others in the image. He waits to see what if anything will happen.

A guard, on the far left, looms over the woman and grabs her with both his hands to pull her away from the judge. Just to the right of the guard is a servant holding a fan; like the cushions on the chair, the judge has every comfort available to him. The servant looks at the judge, and he shares the judge’s amusement at the woman’s predicament, although his smile is not as pronounced as the judge’s—his teeth do not show. There is no trace of sympathy in his smiling face. Another man stands just beside him. He also smiles with some amusement, but instead of looking at the judge, he looks at the woman. His hand is raised, seemingly to direct the woman to leave the judge’s presence.

Another young man peers over the top of the judge’s chair. We only see his face and one hand on the top of the chair. Apparently the young man has to struggle to gain a peek at what is going on. His face also betrays a slight sense of amusement. No one yet shows any interest in helping the poor widow.

Two men, however, stand in the background, both with full, long beards and no trace of amusement on their faces. One man stands in profile, and he apparently looks at the widow as she attempts to plead her case or, perhaps, his eyes merely look down in sadness. The other man looks directly at the viewers, in effect challenging them if not accusing them: "What will you do?" he seems to ask. How will you respond to the injustice taking place against this woman? Or he may be reminding viewers that they too must be persistent, which eventually results in the parable in a happy ending for the widow and, as Luke 18:6-8 promises, God’s bringing justice to those who cry out for it “day and night.” 

Millais later used this print as a starting point to recreate the parable in watercolor; a total of twelve images were developed into watercolors, and fourteen of the designs were used as models for stained-glass windows for the church of Millais’s father-in-law in Perth. One large oil painting of The Parable of the Lost Piece of Money (1862) was lost in a gas explosion and fire, but an oil painting of The Parable of the Tares (1865) is still extant (Barlow 2005: 94).

Millais’s representations of the parables were not universally acclaimed, a fact that I will discuss briefly in my next post (and to which I will respond a bit). I also will include several other photos of Millais's parable prints from the Tate Britain in London.

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