The Wise Virgins by Erhard Küng

Erhard Küng

The Wise Virgins, c.1460–81, Stone sculpture, Main portal, Bern Minster, Switzerland, Arco Images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

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At the Heart of it All

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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.

 

References

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)


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