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Blake, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

Met curator Constance McPhee on outsiders in William Blake’s The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, c. 1799–1800.

Blake painted four versions of this subject for his patron Thomas Butts and this lucid watercolor is the earliest. The wise virgins at left are elegant, palely luminous, and composed within a single plane, recalling classical low-relief sculpture. In contrast, their foolish companions at right are agitated and characterized by dark tones. The drawing illustrates a parable in Matthew 25:1-13 used by Jesus to warn listeners to be spiritually prepared: 

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. A trumpeting angel flying overhead signifies that the moment of judgment has arrived.

View this work on the metmuseum.org

Are you an educator? Here's a related lesson plan. For additional educator resources from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, visit Find an Educator Resource.

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user fsanmartin
    I like the question at the end. Are you prepared? I think its very accurate the interpretation but I wonder if it is a personal interpretation or he left writings or told this to someone?
    (6 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user pippibluestocking
      Just to give a little context, Matthew 25 is when Jesus gives three parables, or a story that teaches a spiritual lesson. The first parable is this one, the ten virgins preparing to meet the bridegroom, but 5 don't have enough oil and cannot meet him. The 2nd parable are 3 servants who choose to develop (or not develop) the money left from their lord, and receive according to their work. The 3rd is the 2nd coming of God to the earth and those who have taken care of the poor, and those who have not and cannot enter God's kingdom. These stories are a continuation of Matthew 24, when Jesus's disciples asked him about what will happen at the second coming, and Jesus in part answers with these parables. So in other words, the context of the stories help with the interpretation of the painting and the question, "are you prepared?" Hope this helps to answer your question.
      (8 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Ms Jennifer
    Ms. McPhee, I loved the lesson on Blake's watercolor, but was a bit taken aback at your comment "...he BELIEVED he saw angels" (emphasis mine).

    Are you to have us infer that you do NOT believe he saw angels? I neither believe nor disbelieve, but with a genius as much a polymath as Blake, who's to say he didn't?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Thomas Fleming
    It's possibly a stunning representation of the Law of Duality?
    (2 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Aubrey Thomas
      In mathematics, a duality, generally speaking, translates concepts, theorems or mathematical structures into other concepts, theorems or structures, in a one-to-one fashion, often (but not always) by means of an involution operation: if the dual of A is B, then the dual of B is A. Such involutions sometimes have fixed points, so that the dual of A is A itself. For example, Desargues' theorem is self-dual in this sense under the standard duality in projective geometry.

      In mathematical contexts, duality has numerous meanings[1] although it is "a very pervasive and important concept in (modern) mathematics"[2] and "an important general theme that has manifestations in almost every area of mathematics".[3]

      Many mathematical dualities between objects of two types correspond to pairings, bilinear functions from an object of one type and another object of the second type to some family of scalars. For instance, linear algebra duality corresponds in this way to bilinear maps from pairs of vector spaces to scalars, the duality between distributions and the associated test functions corresponds to the pairing in which one integrates a distribution against a test function, and Poincaré duality corresponds similarly to intersection number, viewed as a pairing between submanifolds of a given manifold.[4]

      From a category theory viewpoint, duality can also be seen as a functor, at least in the realm of vector spaces. There it is allowed to assign to each space its dual space and the pullback construction allows to assign for each arrow
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

William Blake worked out of the mainstream. Today we might describe him as an outsider artist. He was highly trained as an engraver, but was personally a poet and a visionary. He believed he saw angels and his art was supposed to convey some of that experience of communing with the divine. Blake has taken up the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins who are going to be bridesmaids at a wedding. It’s a watercolor, and different parts have been given very fine detail, and others painted broadly and expressively. Here we see the moment where the messenger announces the bridegroom’s arrival, close to midnight. And the wise virgins are able to keep their lamps lit and go off to the wedding. The foolish ones burned up all their oil, and have to go back to town-- that rather mysterious skyline there in the background. Blake has chosen to portray the two groups in very different ways. The wise virgins on the left are clothed in beautiful, still drapery almost as though they are a phalanx of warriors. Their postures are all very similar, they look united. The ones on the right are all individual in their grief. They almost look like figures that have been taken out of a Last Judgment. Blake has used light here as a symbol. Lamps cast the figures on the left into a wonderful three-dimensionality; whereas the figures on the right are We might wonder, “Why is she being so mean?” It’s not about helping one another, it’s about building up spiritual qualities; no one can give you those. It expresses Blake’s inner life. He did not belong to the accepted artistic community of his day, yet he was able to sustain himself as a creative being throughout decades. This parable is really about the individual relationship to the divine. It took me a while to warm up to this image. I realize it has this intense emotion behind the surface. And the work asks me the question, “Which do you belong to? Are you prepared?”