1902 - “The Crystal Ball” by Waterhouse
Does anyone else feel this picture looks a bit like the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when Arwen loses her immortality?
The body of Liv Tyler’s dress was blue, her hair was down, and obviously she wasn’t gazing into a crystal ball. But there’s something about it that makes me wonder if Peter Jackson – or one of his art directors – got a look at this picture before creating the movie scene.
But this is just an aside. The Crystal Ball was painted by John William Waterhouse in 1902. Unlike most of his other pictures, it is not connected with a poem or any other previously known work (e.g. The Lady of Shalott, Ophelia).
At first glance, it seems rather simple: the lady is by herself and is gazing into a crystal ball that appears to be showing her a vision of water. She is in front of a window, outside of which is a good number of trees – but not enough to show she is living in a forest. There is also a drape which she has not bothered to draw, therefore showing she is not ashamed and will not attempt to hide what she is doing.
Upon the table beside her there is an open book. Lying across it is a taper for the lamp. And peering up from beside the book are the empty eye sockets of a skull (this skull, by the way, had at one time been painted out. But it has since been restored).
If you zoom in on the woman’s dress, you can see that the gold symbols creating a ring around her skirt are in fact either dragons or serpents. It is unlikely this would be meant to signify anything other than that she is a sorceress – or is involved in something equally diabolical. The lady, however, does not appear particularly evil or vengeful.
The painting is simple if you leave it at that. The woman is a sorceress, as evinced by her crystal gazing, her garb, and the presence of the skull, and she only appears innocent because “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”. The oddity of this painting, however, is that, unlike most other Pre-Raphaelite/John William Waterhouse works, the woman is portrayed not with glorious flowing locks, but rather with her hair pinned up. Obviously, from the Princess Leia-like bun her braid creates, she has very long hair. So why would it be hidden like this?
Centuries ago, women could wear their hair long and loose only if they were virgins. Married women and the “fallen” were expected to pin their hair up. Most artists pretty much ignored this old-fashioned rule. Although Waterhouse did not follow it exclusively, it should be noted that his Mermaid (1900), his Lady of Shalott (1888 and 1916), and his Miranda (1916) all portray virginal women with flowing hair. His 1896 Pandora, on the other hand, portrays a woman who is married and therefore has her hair pinned up.
It is a mystery what Waterhouse was trying to say with The Crystal Ball. However, it is possible that this woman is as innocent as she looks and was drawn unwillingly into the occult by her family (throwing the lamp-lighter onto the book seems to show some disregard). Or it could be she had made some kind of mistake in her life and was using her knowledge of divination (however it was gained) to determine what her fate would be. We’ll never know.