David Garrick as Richard III,
Painting by William Hogarth (1697-1764),
Painted in 1745,
Oil on canvas
© Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
The wise and foolish virgins
Jesus told this parable to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones did take their lamps, but they brought no oil, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “The bridegroom is here! Go out and meet him.” At this, all those bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, “Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out.” But they replied, “There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.” They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other bridesmaids arrived later. “Lord, Lord,” they said “open the door for us.” But he replied, “I tell you solemnly, I do not know you.” So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.’
Reflection on the painting
Today’s Gospel reading reminds me of something that we used to do when I was studying in seminary. The night before an important exam, many of us would stay up late to cram in any material into our heads. We sometimes said we were ‘burning the midnight oil’. But whenever we did this, we knew it wasn’t going to work well. We realised it was too late to be well prepared.
Today’s story of the wise and foolish virgins teaches us indeed a good spiritual lesson, that we need to be well prepared with the oils and that the preparation for the second coming of Christ cannot be left to the last minute. This preparation goes beyond for example taking an extra sweater for a long walk outside, or preparing by wearing the right boots: spiritual preparation goes beyond the merely practical. It is all about collecting and gathering enough oil to keep our inner light burning. The oil in our parable is the good deeds we perform and the kindness we extend to others. The kinder we are, the more oil we gather, so to speak.
Maybe we could even compare it to an ‘understudy’ at the theatre or a ‘reserve player’ in a sports team. When they are asked to play and perform, they have already put in plenty of preparation and learned their parts; otherwise, they could not be ready for the play. The understudy or reserve player who becomes a star overnight has already put in all the work beforehand.
Our painting depicts the actor David Garrick in the role of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play. In fact it records his performance in the radically adapted version of Colley Cibber, whose Richard III held the stage from 1700 until 1896. It depicts a dramatic moment in the play on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth (1485). Richard III, who had been asleep in his tent on the battlefield, has just woken from a dream in which he has seen the ghosts of the opponents he had previously murdered. The painting shows David Garrick with fear and concern, one arm raised and with a shocked expression on his face. Hogarth was a friend of Garrick, who had gained a degree of fame through his portrayal of Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Garrick both debuted upon the London stage, and retired from acting, in the role of Richard III. He was an understudy first, before being called to perform his first big role for which he had prepared his whole life.
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