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The Ten Wedding Attendants

The Five Foolish and the Five Sensible Wedding Attendants

Peter von Cornelius (1783-1867). Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf im Ehrenhof – Düsseldorf. Ca. 1813-1816.

Peter von Cornelius made a painting on the parable of the ten wedding attendants. These came with lamps to a wedding, to meet the bridegroom. Five took oil for their lamps, but five did not. The bridegroom was late, so the ten wedding attendants fell asleep. At midnight the bridegroom arrived. All woke up and prepared their lamps. That was no problem for the five sensible attendants; but the five foolish ones had no oil. The five sensible attendants had not enough oil for all, so they advised the foolish ones to go and by oil. While they were off, the bridegroom entered the wedding hall and the doors were closed. When the five foolish attendants arrived, they could not enter. They asked for the doors to be opened, but the bridegroom replied that he did not know them. The bridegroom told them to stay awake because they did not know the day or the hour. Matthew told this parable of Jesus among a series of such metaphorical tales by which Jesus explained that one should nurture one’s relations with God by prayer and sacrifice and not let things happen as they came. Only those that actively searched to fulfil God’s commandments and that did not neglect to serve him well would receive his support at the Day of the Last Judgement.

Peter von Cornelius was born in Düsseldorf in Germany. He studied there but in 1811 joined the Nazarene movement in Rome. In 1816 he made frescoes from the life of Joseph the Egyptian in the Palazzo Zuccaro in Rome, the house of the German consul Bartholdy. These frescoes made him to be well-known in Germany so that the Academies of Düsseldorf and Munich offered him to teach at their schools. He accepted both posts, leaving Rome in 1819, and worked alternatively in the two towns. In 1824 he became the director of the Munich Academy. He worked for King Ludwig I of Bayern but in 1840, after a dispute with the king, he left for Berlin. Many of the works of Peter von Cornelius were frescoes, which either have disappeared or remained projects. He decorated the Quirinius church of Neuss and also the Glyptotek of Munich but these were destroyed. His project for the Camposanto, the cemetery of the kings of Prussia in Berlin, was never realised.

The German painters of the Nazarene movement in Rome preferred Christian themes. They sought a revival of the lat gothic style. The picture of the ‘Five Sensible and Five Foolish Virgins’ was made in Rome over an extended period of several years. Peter von Cornelius was then one of the most prominent figures of the Lukasbund in Rome. We see Jesus as the bridegroom and the five sensible virgins are being presented to him by an angel. Jesus is accompanied by David and by Saint Peter; other disciples stand behind him. David stands to the right side of Jesus. He plays the lyre and is dressed like an oriental king. To the left of Jesus (to the right of the picture) stands Saint Peter, holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven. He also closes the massive wooden doors of the wedding hall. These must represent symbolically the doors of heaven. The two virgins that kneel before Jesus hold no lamps, but the three other virgins that stand to the left of the picture show their oil lamps openly. Peter von Cornelius painted in the right upper corner a dark scene. Here he represented the outside of the hall. It is night; a silvery moon shines and throws some light on the landscape. The five foolish virgins knock desperately on the door. They tear at the door with upheaved arms and hands and some even kneel begging for entrance. They see an orange light in the interior of the hall, but nobody from the wedding party bothers to come to their aid. Von Cornelius thus painted the whole scene of the parable.

The picture of Peter von Cornelius was made in oil, but at least his colours on the left side of the frame remind of fresco paintings. Von Cornelius’ colours are almost pastel, soft and chalky, and that is particularly the case on the figure of Jesus, who resembles a rigid sculpture. Jesus appears in a very pale, almost white flesh colour, even in his face, and the dress he wears is a shade of light grey-grey-white. This is a very unusual colour for Jesus’ robe, unlike the traditional red that often indicates Jesus’ warm compassion and love combined with the blue of spirituality in his cloak. Jesus stands on white-grey clouds so that his appearance is as of a ghost figure. Jesus has replaced the bridegroom in the mind of von Cornelius and it was in this ethereal, post-resurrection image that the painter represented Jesus. The figures of David and Peter also indicate an allegorical image. Von Cornelius thus more showed the explanation, the symbolic meaning of the parable in the left scene, much more than its literal representation of the parable as a true wedding. The wedding is spiritual, so von Cornelius showed the spirituality of the parable first. This was quite normal for the Nazarene mindset, as these painters sought spiritual revival through Christian ideas and imagery.

The parable is however also a story of a real event and it would be impossible not to show this event. In the right part of the picture therefore Peter von Cornelius showed how ell he could compete with late Gothic and early Renaissance painters. We se the virgins and the angel in full detail, drawn with fine lines and clearly delineated areas of colours, the best Florentine style of drawing. The colours are soft but nicely contrasting. We see blue with subdued red, bright orange combined with a greyish, light blue, golden with light purple, a reddish orange with yellow and green. Von Cornelius worked quite bright colours and deeper colours well together here, to a very harmonious and nice whole. He contrasted the dark background on the right finely with the colours of the virgins in full light so that heir colours appear stronger. On the left side however, where colours had to be weakened to represent the mind scene, we see a light but pale sky filled with child angels, putti, and the very bright brilliance of God’s heaven. Here lighter colours are dominant.

Peter von Cornelius organised his composition of the theme in various scenes, which are also the successive scenes of the narrative in the parable: heaven in the top left, Jesus with David and Peter to the left as the spiritual meaning of the story, the sensible virgins on the right and the outside night scene with the five foolish attendants in the upper right of the frame. Von Cornelius balanced the pictorial volume of Jesus, standing high and rigid, but painted in light hues, with the two ladies standing in full colour, painted in bright and even in hard colours, on the right. Since these virgin attendants stand against the dark background of night, and since the light of the oil lamps is intense here, their colours appear even stronger, pore pronounced, clearer and more striking. With this effect of contrast between the hues of higher intensity on the right and the paler, subdued hues on the left, especially in the figure of Jesus, Peter von Cornelius represented the duality of the parable, the opposition of dream and reality, of physical presence and spiritual meaning.

Although there are such contrasts in von Cornelius’ picture, the painter hardly applied powerful differences in light and shadows. There is chiaroscuro in the folds of the robes of the figures, so that the figures are finely chiselled. Jesus particularly seems to have bene sculptured in white marble. But von Cornelius certainly did not show a Caravagesque picture with harsh light-shadow conflicts. This was also in the medieval Gothic style and fitted with the spiritual theme, which was not really a truly happened story but an exercise of the mind. Von Cornelius also make us think in the way the showed the rightmost girls of pictures of Gherardo della Notte, Gheeraert Seghers, a Flemish-Dutch painter who painted scenes lit by point sources of light. In this scene von Cornelius did apply dark-light gradations but he did this non-obtrusively and certainly much less than was usual in the Baroque period.

Most characteristic of this painting is the solemn, dignified setting of the figures around Jesus, and the vertical directions, which are not only emphasised in the figures but also in the high door panels behind Saint Peter. These are the lines of Gothic, the lines also of spiritual aspiration, and of a style that von Cornelius and the Nazarenes revivened in new views.

Peter von Cornelius made a fine picture on the real meaning of the parable, the difference between the reality of a tale and its meaning in mind-images, in a style very characteristic of the Nazarenes. The parable was a nice subject, which surprisingly allowed von Cornelius to develop an interesting subject with a single view. He showed his fine skills as a sensitive artist, as well as his intelligence and his delicate, mastered emotions. The ‘Five Sensible and Five Foolish Virgins’ thus became a noble picture of Christian ideas – more than powerful expression of emotions or of depiction.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2008
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