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Wise and Foolish Virgins, Sant Quirze de Pedret

Circle of the Master of Pedret, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, south apse of the Epistle, Sant Quirze de Pedret, late 11th century to the beginning of 12th century, fresco transferred to canvas 325 x 315 x 320 cm (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: We're in the National Museum of Catalonian Art and we're looking at their incredible collection of Romanesque art. This is work that was brought down from the Pyrenees. Beth: From various Romanesque churches and the museum took them out of those churches and preserves them as part of nationalistic interest in the heritage of art in Catalonia. Steven: This happened in the late 19th century and it's a really good thing that the state recognized the importance of these paintings. Most likely what would have happened is they would have been taken out of situ anyway and sold on the international market. Beth: Although we're not viewing them in the churches in the mountains where it would have been ideal to see them, the museum's done I think a fabulous job in trying to give us a sense of what it was like to see these works on the walls of the churches. Steven: We probably should mention that one of the reasons that these frescoes are so well preserved is likely because of the isolation of the villages in the Pyrenees where they came from. Beth: You have this whole flowering of Romanesque art in that region; painters, craftsmen coming from slightly different regions, slightly different traditions, so as you walk through and look at all the different mural paintings, you see a lot of stylistic variety. Steven: Clearly it was an interaction with the east, with Italy perhaps, and it's really this sort of fascinating moment. There had been enough political and economic stability when, for the first time in many years in Europe, there was the possibility of some real travel from one part of Europe to the next. Beth: We're looking at a semi-circular apse with a tiny window in the center. Steven: This is Romanesque. Beth: It is Romanesque. Big thick walls, and that's important. This is before the walls opened up to stained glass windows in the Gothic period. We have to imagine that all of the thick walls of church covered with these beautiful, colorful frescoes ... And in this case, the semi-circular space tells the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the wise virgins on the left and the foolish ones on the right. Steven: This is really an allegory of the notion of the marriage of the church and of God, of Christ, so the wise virgins and the foolish virgins were both awakened when the bridegroom arrives. The wise virgins had enough forethought to be prepared to bring enough oils so that their oil lights, their lanterns, could be lit throughout the entire ceremony. The foolish virgins on the other hand, had not had that forethought and had to run off to purchase more oil which meant that they were late to the proceedings. All of that is really a reference to the end of time, to the apocalypse, to the last judgement. Beth: To be prepared. Steven: Well, that's right. Only those that are prepared, those that have fully accepted Christ in advance are going to be allowed into the kingdom of heaven. Beth: The bridegroom in the story is Christ himself. You see Christ seated at the table with the wise virgins who are holding their illuminated candles and who look very proper and upright as compared to the virgins on the right, the foolish virgins who look a little bit disorganized. Steven: They do. Beth: And they're not seated at the table. Steven: Well, they're actually probably negotiating for more oil at the moment. Beth: (laughs) Steven: And their hands are moving in different directions, their gazes are moving in different directions, all of which suggests a kind of chaos, I think. Beth: But I like how well the virgins on the left, who are at the table with Christ, are all looking in Christ's direction. They have that focus. Their gaze goes towards Christ. Christ is seated near some architecture which represents the heavenly Jerusalem. When we look at this, I think both you and I were really struck by how [unintelligible] this seemed. It might remind us the mosaics in Ravenna, the figures have facial features that are very geometric, eyes in the shapes of lozenges and lines for eyebrows. Steven: You can see that interest in the Visintine, especially in the mantles around the shoulders, where you can see jewels represented. That actually reminds me very much of mosaics from the 6th century from the east. But there's also references to the Classical. For instance, directly under the virgins, there's this lovely little band which shows a meander, this little geometric set of forms which is coming out of the Greek and then adopted by the Romans. Below that you can see a hanging drapery. That may be a reference to the traditions of ancient Roman art which often depicted illusionistic hangings. Beth: Also, some remnant of modeling in an attempt to make figures look three-dimensional, if you look at the modeling under the neck or on the cheeks, or a little bit on the drapery, there's still some suggestion of three-dimensional form. But there's no doubt on the other hand that we're looking at something medieval, something Romanesque. The figures are weightless and elongated. Their hands are enlarged so that their gestures are very readable. Above we have a large Mandorla or halo-like form with painted rainbow and jewels around it that obviously once showed Christ and Mary or Mary holding the Christ child. So it's important to remember this sort of painted interior that someone would have walked in or you really would have learned all of the important biblical stories. Steven: The population would have been largely illiterate and so the idea of actually telling these stories, telling these parables through imagery would have been crucially important. Beth: I'm also just struck by all of the decorative surfaces; the painted jewels, the floral motif, it must have been, when walking in the church, almost like walking into the heavenly Jerusalem itself. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)