UNADORNED AND UNPERFUMED:: Michelangelo’s Sibyls

At the behest of Pope Julius II della Rovere, Michelangelo repainted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel over the years 1508-12. The iconographic program included five sibyls, who are ranked with the seven major Old Testament prophets. While their presence is conventional, the appearance and actions of the Delphic, Libyan, Erithraean, Cumaean and Persian Sibyls reveal a deeper historical awareness on the part of Michelangelo of the powers, duties, competencies and character traits of each sibyl.

The Delphic Sibyl, dressed as a priestess, is pictured in media res; she has just has watched the vapors rise from Apollo’s tripod, and turns to hand the scroll with the response from the oracle to the priests. The two boys in the background read and react to the prophecy, which has been recorded in the book of the temple.

The Cumaean Sibyl asked Apollo to live for as many years as she had grains of sand in her hand but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Michelangelo shows her as a bulky, weather-beaten matron, who has retained her girlish graces, as seen in her legs held together and feet demurely tucked under her. She may be ancient, but she is still vigorous, poring over her books earnestly and diligently, in the full light of day, scouring the runes for something to prophecy.

The Persian Sybil was cursed with eternal life by Apollo when she rejected his advances. She is the opposite of the robust Cumaea. Fully wrapped, thin and frail, she turns into the shadow. All Michelangelo shows us of her face is a lost profile. His decision to show her holding a small book up close to her face is an ironic indicator of her withered powers—sibyls are supposed to be farsighted, not shortsighted.

Sitting before what looks like her dressing table, but is more likely an altar in the temple, the Libyan Sybil confidently takes her huge book from a shelf. She is young like Delphica, but not troubled by her work. An exemplary figura serpentinata, she turns outward and steps down, à point no less, at the same time as she lifts the book with no effort. Michelangelo went to great lengths to imbue the Libyan Sybil with physical strength, agility and luminosity. Dressed in a miraculous gown of diaphanous silky fabrics, she looks more like a mango-flavored cloud than a soothsayer living in the Libyan desert.

Like the Hebrew prophets, the Sibyls are clearly identified by fictive carved epigraphy so as far as the program goes, any individuation or particularization beyond an attribute here and there is unnecessary. The wide range of expressive poses, countenances and actions of seen in Michelangelo’s 12 characters, therefore not only exceed their iconographical mandate, but threaten to overshadow their allegorical function, so thoroughly are they grounded in the material world, contingency and transient emotion. It is as if the cast of a Shakespeare comedy, teeming with psychological realism, wandered unto the wrong stage. The anecdotal details of concerning the prophets must have come from Michelangelo’s reading of the Bible, which he did throughout his lifetime (where he would have gleaned the details about the sibyls is less clear). Knowing that the artist was reading about these figures while alone on his scaffold, one is tempted to read empathy or identification into the relationship of unpaid, coerced artist unhappily executing an unwanted task to the tormented, marginalized and often ignored prophets and Sibyls.

Michelangelo, of course, did not makes the prophets and sibyls look unhappy and misunderstood because he, too, was a lonely genius. Such license would not only have been unthinkable from the point of view of the patron—Julius didn’t pay to be indirectly criticized—and the anachronistic notion of identification and psychological realism would have been utterly alien to a 16th artist, patron or viewer (this applies to the sentimental reading of Shakespeare as well). As with all things Michelangelo (and later, Picasso), one must continually steel oneself against anachronistic popular readings that end up proving he was a lonely, tortured, genius and not much else. If one is engaged in art history and not rewriting The Agony and the Ecstasy, one might return to the fact that the Libyan Sybil is a masterful figura serpentinata, a bravura display of artistic skill, which will the patron expected, and one might go one to note figure come fratelli, the paragone, and other Renaissance set pieces scattered throughout the cycle. The exaggerated poses can also be seen as solutions to the viewing problems created by great height of the vaults. The forms of the figures may have been determined by the rituals staged there. The only occasions on which the ceiling could have been viewed were liturgical events which had set processional paths and fixed seats, which limited the possible viewing positions and angles considerably. To address this, the artist painted figures that appear distorted and ungainly when viewed straight on from the scaffold (a view that was never intended), but resolve differently when seen foreshortened from below. As for the anguished or anxious expressions of the figures, in period terms, Michelangelo would probably have conceived of them as a representations of terribilità or as an index of nobilità. Whatever their motivation, the images of the prophets and sibyls were certainly intended to fulfill their iconographic duties and read as powerful visionaries on whose massive shoulders the edifice of Christian eschatology religion rests.

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