Miracles, magic and the power of prophecy are common themes in Waterhouse's art. In this picture he shows a group of seven young girls, sitting in a semicircle round a lamplit shrine, waiting in excitement while the priestess interprets the words of the Oracle.
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy with the following explanation in the catalogue: 'The Oracle or Teraph was a human head, cured with spices, which was fixed against the wall, and lamps being lit before it and other rites performed, the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed that they heard a low voice speaking future events.' The setting is probably imaginary, but has an exotic, middle-eastern flavour, derived from the work of artists such as J.F. Lewis (1805-1876), rather than from personal experience. The atmosphere is heady with incense and the priestess gestures to the women to be silent as she strains to interpret the utterings of the mummified head.
Hobson compares the painting's composition to the shape of a keyhole. As he explains, 'This refers not to some telescopic view of the scene but to the keyhole shape of the figure grouping, in which a ring of spectators concentrate their attention upon another single figure' (quoted in Hobson 1989, pp.31-4). The composition, for all its exoticism, is essentially classical. The series of arched windows, the semi-circular design of the floor and the sweep of the marble step set up a rhythm within the painting. This is counterbalanced by the diagonals of the patterned rugs and the leaning body of the priestess, her hand silhouetted against the daylight, streaming through the open window. The women's varied expressions of apprehension add to the atmosphere of tension as the priestess waits for the oracle to speak.
Contemporary critics remarked on the 'hysteric awe' of the semicircle of women seeking the prophecies of the Teraph and the 'terror' of the priestess as she 'interprets its decrees' (quoted in Hobson 1989, p.34). The Illustrated London News featured the picture as one of the principal works of the year and reproduced it across two pages of an extra supplement. It was bought by Sir Henry Tate, who included it in his founding bequest to the nation in 1894.
A study for the composition, in grey and brown wash, is also in the Tate collection (Tate T02106).
Anthony Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, Oxford 1989, pp.31-4, reproduced p.33.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.236-42.