The Wise and Foolish Virgins By Quentin Bell

‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’ is one of the Jesus’ parables. It is a story about being watchful and spiritually prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the ‘Day of Judgment’ when the Son of Man comes to judge the world and to bring in His Kingdom.

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

Only those five ‘Wise’ virgins who had oil for their lamps when the bridegroom came would be allowed into the ‘wedding feast’ –a metaphor for the celebration, joy and fellowship of the Kingdom of Heaven. The foolish virgins who had fallen asleep without looking ahead and filling their lamps with oil would be left out. If one bears in mind that this is a painting which portrays deliverance from judgement then it alters the way in which one interprets its different qualities.

The Architectural Context

‘The Last Judgment’ or ‘Doom’ was sometimes depicted on the west (Nave) side of a church’s Chancel Arch showing those who were ‘saved’ and those who were being consigned to hell. At Berwick the more positive and historic image of ‘Christ in Glory’ is depicted in this position. The Chancel arch separates the Nave, the main body of the church, from the Chancel and Sanctuary. It symbolically divides two distinct spaces, one representing the World, the other Heaven (or the Kingdom of God/Heaven, as Jesus called it). This coming of the Kingdom, the rule of God’s love and justice, is anticipated and rehearsed in Christian worship.

Though it is on the east side of the chancel arch where it is rarely seen, the theme of judgement is in keeping with this part of the church. The doors of the chancel screen resonate with that in the parable. The physical movement of the congregation from the Nave into the Chancel to receive the bread and wine at Communion symbolises the foretaste of entering the Kingdom of Heaven and sharing in the ‘Wedding Feast of the Lamb’ –i.e. Jesus. The meal, whether it be a metaphorical wedding feast, as in the parable of the virgins, or the supper at which Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover with his disciples, expresses the spirit of joy and fellowship which is at the heart of Christian belief. The dancing angels and the enthroned Christ on the other side of the Chancel express this spirit and it is one that particularly resonated with Duncan’s work.

The symbolism is that of light and dark. Quentin locates the lightest part of his painting in the darkest part of the space given to him, the apex of the church roof. Light symbolising truth and enlightenment; darkness spiritual blindness and ignorance. There are relatively few examples from the tradition of Christian art of the treatment of this subject and Quentin must have felt fairly free to treat it as he wished.

The spirit of expectancy and anticipation is represented in the painting by divine light streaming out through door that is ajar. It invites the viewer to imagine a future celebration that has been prepared for them and for which they should prepare themselves.

The Painting

The restricted triangular space above the chancel arch is a challenging one in which to depict this parable. Quentin’s solution is clever and original. Steps lead up on either side to the apex of the arch and then continue up the centre to the open door at the top. Whether consciously or not, by adopting this design Quentin is introducing another theme into the painting – that of ascent. In Christian iconography a rocky landscape, for example, represents the spiritual ascent that needs to be made in prayer. Similarly, the oil in the virgins’ lamps is symbolic of prayer. The virgins with empty lamps are those who have neglected the place of faith and prayer in their lives and they remain trapped in the darkness and are left out of the celebration.

The two pencil studies of figures for this mural show how the mural is constructed of a combination of individual study portraits (see above). The artist experiments with the folding of fabric and the variety of postures that will enable the space to be filled, while at the same time conveying the alluring beauty and movement of the virgins.

The women are in various degrees of wakefulness and adopt different postures on either side of the arch: some are seated, others reclining and others moving towards the doorway holding their lamps. These are traditional clay lamps similar to those of the biblical period. The expressions of the wise virgins on the right are more peaceful and happy than those of the more sullen foolish virgins on the left.

Towards the lower right and left hand side of the arch are two niches. One gives a view through to a brightly lit room and a lighted oil lamp is placed in it. The other is dark and contains a vase of red flowers, possibly carnations or roses. The two may be symbolic of the two groups: the foolish on the left, the wise on the right.

The jigsaw of interlocking figures is quite an accomplishment and creates a strong sense of rhythm. But if there is an overall feel to the painting, then it is one of stillness and of the sleep which has fallen upon all the virgins. However, decision to include all ten virgins overcrowds the space and reduces the feeling of movement.

One virgin turns her head to look back, revealing her beauty, as she heads towards the door almost as if to see who else is coming  drawing, or is it ‘enticing’, the viewer to follow her. In the other the virgin has her back to the door and the right hand is held to her head in an expression of distress, or maybe tiredness? The model for both is probably Chattie Salaman but Quentin also used another model for the work, Mrs Robert Biggs. The ‘cloning’ of these two for this mural has its own impact on the composition: creating a slightly wooden and unnatural uniformity.