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1902 - “The Crystal Ball” by Waterhouse

Updated on January 14, 2013

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 Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse
The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse | Source

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.

The Crystal Ball prior to its restoration. Notice the skull is missing.
The Crystal Ball prior to its restoration. Notice the skull is missing. | Source

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?

Pandora by John William Waterhouse
Pandora by John William Waterhouse | Source

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.

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    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Hi LastRose, I think I do know what it means, as a reader of Tarot cards for the last 20 or so years I believe she is the take or copy of the Sorceress in the Tarot cards. The symbols around her dress, the crystal ball are typical of her in the minor arcana or 22 cards of the deck. She signifies womanhood, intuition, possible second sight and you should always take notice of this card when it falls as it is telling you to use your intuition about the other cards, for example say you lay the fool card, the lovers and the moon card along with this one, it will tell you that your partner is acting strangely or like a fool because he is two timing you, that's the lovers, and the moon card tells you he is lying to you. The priestess always is about womans intuition, and if a man is having his cards read it still means the same, its more about the intuition than the woman in the card. Seems that Waterhouse may have been a secret psychic! lol! voted up, beautiful hub! nell

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 4 years ago from Southwest England

      It is certainly a beautiful and thought provoking painting. I think she is definitely a sorceress trying to divine the future. The skull in paintings is usuallly a reminder of human mortality, and I think that must be a spellbook on the table. Waterhouse painted another picture called The Sorceress set in front of the same window. See:

      http://www.johnwaterhouse.com/paintings/images/wat...

      thanks for an interesting hub :)

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image
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      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Imogen French - Oh, my goodness! Thank you so much! That is a Waterhouse picture which I had somehow never seen!

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