According to Matthew 25:1-4: “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.” In illustrating the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Julia Margaret Cameron selected a theological narrative that is comparable in dogma to the Last Judgement. It its broader message, the wise (or righteous) virgins were those who led virtuous lives and were therefore prepared to enter heaven. The foolish virgins were those unrighteous women who were unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ) and consequently had the gates of heaven closed to them.
Cameron took great pains to illustrate the lesson according to traditional iconography. The wise virgins, huddled together in a phalanx of figures, are modestly veiled, solemn and severe, and bear oil lamps upright and (supposedly) flaming. The foolish virgins (see 84.XZ.186.41) reveal long tresses of unbound hair, suggesting their moral corruption. Their expressions are remorseful and penitent. These women are arranged within the identifiable architectural space of the studio, complete with skylight and black drape. Mary Hillier (1847-1936), Cameron’s household maid, is recognizable in both studies; the identities of the other subjects are unknown.