Michelangelo’s Sibyls of the Sistine Chapel
- August 26, 2014
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A Sibyl was an oracle or prophetess in ancient Greece who was known to prophesy at holy sites under the influence of a deity. The first collection of Sibyl utterances were recorded by Roman author Lactantius in the early 4th century AD. Sibyls were represented in art as early as the Middle Ages as well as early Renaissance pieces. Varro numbered ten Sibyls though other ancient sources differ as to the number, some only list one while others as many as twelve.
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo alternated five Sibyls and seven prophets. The five Sibyls painted by Michelangelo were said to have foretold of the birth of a savior. The prophecies by the pagan prophetesses were accepted by Christians as being fulfilled with the birth of Christ. Thus the prophets of the Old Testament and the Sibyls of pagan antiquity all foretold the same coming of the Christ and are depicted together in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted these figures larger than any other in the Sistine Chapel. During Michelangelo’s time there was a renewed interest in the writings of the classical and early Christian period which drew more attention to the Sibyls. Michelangelo’s depiction of them here shows the shift in theology at the time.
The Sibyls Michelangelo painted are not all beautiful but they all have a sense of being powerful. The paintings are like sculptures as their robes seem to billow around them. He painted the Cumaean, Delphic, Erythraean, Persian and Libyan Sibyls. Why he selected the five Sibyls he did is not known though a number of different theories do exist.