Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil

Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil is one of the most familiar figures from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. For one thing, she is one of the largest figures, seated among the seven prophets and five sybils in the spandrels that punctuate the outside edge of the ceiling’s decorative scheme. The prophets are well-known to us from the Hebrew Scriptures, foretelling the need for and coming of the Savior, which is the central theme articulated in the ceiling. Less well understood are the sybils, the female prophetesses of the Classical world; they, too, were thought to have foreseen the advent of the Messiah. How Michelangelo imagined them, and why, bears a closer look.

Color Revelation

Michelangelo envisions the Delphic sybil as a young woman seated on a throne, holding an unfurled scroll and giving a startled look to the side as her golden hair flies out behind her. She wears a blue headscarf and vibrant yellow-green and orange clothing. Traditionally, the Delphic sybil’s cult was the most ancient one of the Classical world. In the origin myth, the original sybil was a sister of Apollo and her sanctuary lay at the center of the world, at Delphi. According to tradition, her cult predated the Trojan War, and it continued in operation until it was shut down by the Christian emperor Theodosius in the fourth century A.D.

As historically the most ancient sybil, Michelangelo sets her at the entrance to the chapel, but he depicts her as a young woman since successive priestesses at Delphi were chosen as young girls, who went on to lead chaste and virginal lives. The artist’s choice of colors emphasizes her youthfulness: her blue headdress connects her with the celestial, but the green of her drapery is the color of youth and growth, and the bright yellow-orange stands for her warmth.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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