Vanitas Et Veritas: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

By Joynel Fernandes –

We now plunge into the sixth and the last discourse of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Eschatological or the apocalyptic discourse. Consisting of Chapter 24 and 25, it revolves around the themes of Parousia (Greek word for ‘arrival’) or the Lord’s second coming. To elaborate upon this theme Matthew presents 3 parables. The painting in consideration is concerned with the second parable namely, ‘The Wise and the Foolish Virgins’.

The allegorical reading taken from Matthew chapter 25 verses 1 to 13 employs a number of images that would be familiar to the first century recipients. The first is that of a marriage. In modern times it is usually the bride who gets ‘fashionably late’ for the nuptials while the groom anxiously awaits his beloved. Not so was the scene in Jesus’ day and age.

Wedding festivities lasted for seven days. On this joyous occasion the bridesmaids would await the arrival of the bridegroom with lamps and would greet him in a procession of lights. The groom, as in today’s parable, is the lord of surprises. He comes at an hour unknown.

Francken Hieronymus the Younger (1616) translates this allegory into reality through his painting. Here the camera focuses on two groups of bridesmaids who wait in anticipation for the groom’s arrival. The activity they indulge in is what distinguishes one group from the other.

Commanding a dominant space and seated onto a plinth are the five ‘foolish’ virgins. They are dressed in ornate satin and silks, taffetas and brocades bedecked with precious stones, lace trimmings and frills. They sit in merry company as they indulge in wine and song.

While the first devours a royal meal, the second plays the fiddle. While the third lumps into a lazy slumber, the fourth strums the lute. The fifth turns in profile looking into our space as her fingers dance through the keys of the stringed clavichord. The opening board displays an erotic scene among the woods. Thus the five foolish virgins personify the sins of gluttony, avarice, sloth, lust and pride.

Strewn around the 5 foolish virgins are symbols signifying vanity. These include the books (human knowledge); broken glasses (fleeting life); rings, coins and purses (narcissism and arrogance); jar, dice and cards (pleasures); shell (fertility); scythes (mortality) and mask (hypocrisy). 

It refers to Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 2, ‘Vanity of Vanities, everything is vanity.’ This form of Christian art was popular among the Dutch realist artist (such as Francken) during the Dutch Golden age of the early 17th century.  It aims at conveying the message about the transience of earthly life and the permanence of Christian values.

We now move to the second group of bridesmaids who are determined ‘wise’ by their conduct. Dressed modestly, they seek reality more than pleasure. They are seated in an organized interior divested of frivolous things and surrounded by symbols of piety and virtue. While the first sews, the second works along. The third virgin is seen refilling her lamp with oil. The fourth, her gaze affixed at the crucifix, prays the rosary and meditates on the scriptures.

At the rear end of the wall is hung a framed image of the condemned Christ. Surrounding it are the relics of the passion. The fifth virgin in humble adoration adores Christ contemplating upon His love and mercy. Suspended above the frame is a winged hour glass. It serves as a clear indication of the brevity of earthly life.

Interestingly each of the five wise Virgins has their lamps burning. It reflects their gleaming faith and goodness. Closed to the shadows of the earth, they open up to the clarity of the skies. As illustrated in the topmost center of the painting, the celestial groom (Christ) finally hits home. Hoisting the flag of victory in one hand, he welcomes the wise virgins. The drowsy foolish virgins who have run out of oil (read good deeds) lament and wail as they receive a stern cold ‘I don’t know you’.

Thus the painting presents a parallel, a comparison between the wise and the foolish, between being led by the world as by the Word. The wise virgins prepared not just for the arrival of the bridegroom but also for his delay. As they waited, they were flattered not by vanity but held on to the reality of His imminent coming. Veritas sans Vanitas saved their day!

For a scriptural understanding of today’s Gospel please refer to Fr Warner D’Souza’s blog: http://www.pottypadre.com/access-denied/


Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to the younger generation.

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