The Wise and Foolish Maidens
Commentary by Richard Stemp
This modestly sized triptych elides a remarkable number of different motifs to drive its message home. Jesus sits in judgement, the dove of the Holy Spirit above his head, and the tetragrammaton (a four-letter representation of the Name of God) at the apex of the painting: we are in the presence of the Holy Trinity.
At Christ’s feet is the cross, strongly foreshortened, the book of the law resting open on it. On either side sit Saints Andrew and Peter, as well as Moses and Aaron, with the Virgin and John the Baptist interceding on our behalf, as in an Orthodox Deësis. At the top of each wing an angel sounds a trumpet for the end of time. One holds a lily, the other, a flaming sword, attributes of Mercy and Justice that are often held by Jesus himself.
The blessed to the left of the central panel represent the seven acts of mercy. They include a pilgrim with the coat of arms of the German city of Münster, where the artist was born and died: this could be a self-portrait (Riewerts and Pieper 1955: 32). An angel indicates heaven, while the damned, represented on the right by personifications of the seven deadly sins, are chased to hell by a demon.
In the wings the blessed head up a spiral staircase, and the damned are dragged towards a flaming pit. Again, these are not random members of the human race, but the wise and foolish maidens, lamps in their hands. The meaning of the parable is made explicit: the awaited marriage is our communion with Christ at the end of days, and we must be prepared. After all, Death is coming to get us. He stands in a funeral bier at the centre of the painting aiming his bow and arrow at the viewer. The wonder of this foreshortening is that, from whichever angle you see it, Death appears to be shooting at you.
‘You know neither the day nor the hour’, the parable tells us (v.13), nor, as the painting makes clear, is there any escape.
Riewerts, Theodor and Paul Pieper. 1955. Die Maler tom Ring (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 32–33
A Practised Unreadiness
Commentary by Richard Stemp
At first glance, this appears to be a straightforward illustration of the latter part of the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens. We see the five wise maidens inside at the marriage feast, while outside the foolish return only to find themselves excluded. However, as we look more closely, intricately depicted details add to our understanding of the story, heighten the drama, and intensify the implications of the parable for the faithful.
The bridegroom is explicitly identified as Christ, with archetypal hair, beard, and blue robe. His right hand holding an orb, he is a kind-hearted pantocrator. The five wise maidens are gathered around him in the privileged space with halo-like auras. Although there is no evidence that we are anywhere other than on earth, at the bottom right of the painting a diagonal, rising sill implies an external staircase to take us to a higher realm.
It appears to be day, regardless of the fact that the cry came at midnight, but then, which ‘dealers’ would be in business before morning? Three of the returning maidens have been successful, and their lamps burn with vivid irony. Curled up in regret at the doorstep, a fourth, in red, has let her lamp drop and it smokes, as if recently extinguished. The fifth, in green, appears to have abandoned hers in her anguish. Behind the head of the maiden in blue, bells ring out—in celebration of the marriage, no doubt, but for the foolish, as an alarm.
That they are excluded from a Christian feast is emphasized by the door itself, two planks of which form a Latin cross. The circular knocker alludes to an exhortation from the same Gospel, ‘knock, and it shall be opened to you’ (Matthew 7:7), and perhaps also to Revelation 3:20—famously illustrated by William Holman Hunt some thirty years earlier in The Light of the World.
But for the foolish maidens it is too late. Indeed, it has been too late for some long time. We might think that this is the dawn after the bridegroom’s midnight arrival, but, as in The Light of the World, leaves gathered on the step imply that the door has not recently been opened. In contrast to the optimism of Hunt’s image, John Melhuish Strudwick is telling us that the tardy preparation of the foolish should never have been an overnight affair, but one begun long ago.
Kosteren, Steven. 1988. ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1937)’, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies, 1.2: 1–9
At the Heart of it All
Commentary by Richard Stemp
In this sculptural complex the wise and foolish maidens take a pivotal role. They flank the doors, and are the closest thing to eye-level—we cannot miss them. In this context, the doors of the church become the entry point for the marriage feast, and, according to the parable, should we arrive too late we will find the doors shut.
But this is just part of God’s cosmic plan: frescoes on the flanking walls of the porch, painted by ‘The Carnation Master’ in 1501, show the Fall (on our right, the side of the foolish) and the Annunciation (on the side of the wise): we move rapidly from sin to the promise of redemption. Atop the tympanum, Christ sits in judgement, flanked by the twelve apostles, and by Mary and John the Baptist, eight prophets, and five angels holding the instruments of the Passion. In the tympanum itself, we see the blessed and the damned being welcomed into Heaven or dragged to Hell respectively. Standing at the centre is the Archangel Michael trampling the devil, the scales of justice in one hand and a sword in the other.
The elegant vaulting of the porch (not visible in this photograph) includes sculpted bosses showing the Holy Spirit, the sun, the moon, and the five known planets, as well as the symbols of the Evangelists, and the nine choirs of angels. So the maidens really do find themselves at the centre of all creation, and our understanding of them is vital for our understanding of the Christian message. As we enter the building they remind us that the choice is ours: do we enter on the side of the blessed or the damned? Are we ready for the second coming?
Our choice extends to the decoration of the doors themselves. In the carved vines above the door to our left (below the right hand of Christ) there are bunches of grapes, whereas the vines below his left, condemning hand, are barren. Being ready for the arrival of the bridegroom will clearly bear fruit.
Sladeczek, Franz-Josef. 1990. Erhart Küng (um 1420–1507) Bildhauer und Baumeister am Münster zu Bern (Bern: Paul Haupt)
Tremp-Utz, Kathrin et al. 1982. Das Jüngste Gericht: das Berner Münster und sein Hauptportal (Bern: Verein zur Förderung des Bernischen Historischen Museums)
Hermann tom Ring :
Triptych with the Triumph of Death and the Last Judgement , c.1550–55 , Oil on panel
John Melhuish Strudwick :
The Ten Virgins, c.1884 (?) , Oil on canvas
Erhard Küng :
The Wise Virgins, c.1460–81 , Stone sculpture
Waiting for God
Commentary by Richard Stemp
The parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is told as part of Jesus’s discourse on the end of days. Having left the Temple, he talks of its destruction, leading the disciples to ask, ‘Tell us, when will this be?’ (Matthew 24:3). Although ultimately, the answer to this question is ‘only God knows’, Jesus’s reply constitutes the remainder of chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel, as well as the whole of chapter 25. He enumerates the signs of the second coming, and gives the first suggestions about the need to be prepared, of which the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens will be the clearest illustration.
Before he gets to that, though, he explains how those present, ‘will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’, and that, ‘he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call’ (Matthew 24:30–31), precisely as illustrated by Hermann tom Ring.
Matthew 24 ends with a renewed emphasis on the necessity for watchfulness. It is the good servant, he says, who is always ready to serve his master. As the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens comes immediately after this, at the beginning of Matthew 25, it should be understood in the light of the good servant, implying that we should, certainly, be watchful for the signs of the bridegroom’s arrival, but above all should be ready, whenever it should be.
In John Melhuish Strudwick’s The Ten Virgins, the pile of leaves at the door implies that the foolish have been gone for too long: effectively, it says that their unpreparedness was a way of life. For the wise maidens, being well equipped with oil, and therefore in terms of the meaning of the parable, being well equipped spiritually, was clearly ingrained. But it does also remind us that Jesus’s parables are specific to the lesson he is teaching at that point in his ministry. It is earlier in the Gospel that he says, ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Matthew 7:7), but that was in the context of behaviour towards others, here we need to pray that our faith is strong. For ultimately, while we should not judge (Matthew 7:1–2), Jesus will. In this case, if we have not made whatever preparations we can for the arrival of our Saviour, it will be too late to knock.
Both Hermann tom Ring and Erhard Küng place the parable within the context of the Last Judgement. For tom Ring, the wise and the foolish are, quite simply, the blessed and the damned, led happily to Heaven holding their flaming lanterns aloft, or thrust into Hell with their extinguished lamps downturned. In Bern, often seen as the last of the great medieval Judgement portals, their presence flanking the doorway makes the entrance to the church the entrance to the marriage feast and reminds everyone on entering that they must be prepared not just now, but at all times.
The inclusion of the maidens as part of the Last Judgement is explained more fully by the continuation of Matthew 25. Our parable is followed by the parable of the Talents—an equivalent, which implies that we must invest in a good spiritual future (in much the same way that the wise maidens’ investment in the oil of faith led them to be rewarded with entry to the marriage): ‘for to every one who has will more be given’ (Matthew 25:26). Christ then explains how the sheep will be placed at his right hand and the goats at his left—just as we see the blessed and damned being separated both in the painting and above the portal. The chapter ends with the homily that establishes what would later become known as six of the Seven Acts of Mercy, so it is entirely fitting that Hermann tom Ring has one group of the elect personify these virtues.
The meaning of this particular parable has never been considered obscure, and is expounded with clarity in these three works. If we want to enter into eternity in communion with God—represented on earth by the body of the church—then being prepared for the arrival of Christ should be the habit of a lifetime, for we do not know when we will be judged.