The Wise and the Foolish Virgins; Peter von CORNELIUS; 1813; oil on canvas; Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, Germany


The wise and the foolish vigins

Unerstand the scene

What you can see in this picture……

A parable. Ten maidens at night. Five of them carry lit oil lamps, they are the wise virgins; the other five carry the same lamps that are extinguished, they are the foolish or silly ones. The latter will not take part in the feast when the Bridegroom arrives.

Now the Bridegroom has arrived, and the wise virgins welcome him with their lamps and kneel down. Whereas the foolish virgins are agitated in the background, trying to find someone ready to sell them some oil. For they have no longer any oil, they have burnt it all before the feast. They are improvident.

In this picture, the messianic meaning of the parable is unveiled: the Bridegroom is definitely Christ, accompanied by Peter with his keys, the wise virgins are in the light of the kingdom of God whereas the foolish ones, still looking for oil, have been rejected to the bottom of darkness.


and in other pictures

The maidens are often separated into two groups of five, but they can form a more complex composition, one of them with an extinguished lamp speaking to another whose lamp is lit.

Their dresses are beautiful for this is a wedding. But the attitudes, clothes and headdresses of the two groups are often opposed. The former maidens wear sober clothes and behave with restraint movements whereas the others, those who have no longer any oil, are provocative and gesticulating. They are busy with futile objects: mirrors, musical instruments or books… They can also wake up suddenly because they are lazy…

The landscape is sometimes filled with opposed symbols: a living olive tree against a dead tree, a wise dog against a barking dog…

The presence of the Bridegroom is extremely varied. He may arrive in the distance or, on the reverse, be already inside the banqueting hall with the wise virgins whereas the silly ones are always outside.

The biblical narrative

The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 25 

 Jesus tells a parable about his kingdom

 "Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
Those that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

They all go to sleep but, when the Bridegroom arrives, the foolish ones cannot light up their lamps, they have no more oil.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and those that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.


Afterward came also the other virgins, saying: "Lord, Lord, open to us !" But he answered : "Verily I say to you, I do not know you !"  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
(Matthew 25:1-13).



One must always be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, the return of Christ. The symbolism of light and darkness is directly related to the kingdom of God.


See similar pictures


Two close representations: the wise virgins are with the bridegroom in the house whose door is closed, the foolish virgins lament outside



The wise Virgins are let into the House with the Bridegroom (Christ); the foolish virgins are shut out; c. 1450; drawing; from the “Speculum Humanae Salvationis” of Cologne; manuscript MMW 10 B 34 41r; Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague




The Wise and Foolish Virgins; Edward BURNE-JONES; 1859; drawing; private collection

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum


The opposition between Wisdom, which is order, stability… and Foolishness, which is disorder, movement…



The Foolish Virgin; c. 1245; stone; Cathedral; Magdeburg, Germany

Web Gallery of Art



The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins; William BLAKE; 1822; watercolour; Tate Collection; London

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Maurice Denis freely draws his inspiration from the parable to give a new dimension to wisdom.



Maurice Denis freely draws his inspiration from the parable to give a new dimension to wisdom




Further developpements


A few expressions have remained famous


“you know neither the day nor the hour”: the ending of the parable has a religious meaning but it is also used to speak about an unexpected event.


The phrase “foolish virgin” is generally detached from its context but owes its success to the opposition of the two words.


The adjectives “wise” and “foolish” are traditional but a few new translations prefer “sensible” and “prudent”, “silly” and “thoughtless”.



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