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
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.