Michelangelo Highlights – Was he telling a story?

| July 17, 2010
Cumaean Sibyl By Michelangelo

Cumaean Sibyl By Michelangelo

Before breaking out the brushes for my weekend painting project, I want to share a bit of information I gleaned while reading about the Florentine painters of the Renaissance. When I know I will be sitting on airplanes, I like to plan beforehand how I am going to make the best use of my time. On my most recent trip to Vermont, I decided Michelangelo would be my subject of study. Most of my information in this post came from a free Gutenberg Project book I downloaded via Apple’s iBookstore to my iPad. The book was named Michelangelo written by Estelle May Hurll in 1900.

The Vatican is quite mobbed with tourists in the summer. You don’t have much time to ponder Michelangelo’s artistic motivations while staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for a few brief but glorious moments with hundreds of your closest international friends. This post is not about the Chapel as much as it is about learning a bit more about Michelangelo’s motivations as an artist and how he injected immense meaning into is beautifully executed work.

The piece above is among the rows of figures which Michelangelo painted along the arched portion of the Chapel’s ceiling. Although the Bible does not reference sibyls, they were given a place by Michelangelo among the prophets in the decoration of the Chapel ceiling. They were women of ancient times supposed to have supernatural gifts of foretelling the future. Though they lived in heathen countries in caves and grottoes, tradition ran that the prophesied the advent of Christ. As with the prophets, he chose to represent some in old age and some in youth.

To understand Michelangelo’s motivations for the Cumaean sibyl painting above, we need to understand a bit more about her. The legend runs that having asked a friend of Apollo, she gathered a handful of sand and said, “Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are sand grains in my hand.” The wish was granted, but since she forgot to ask for enduring youth, she was doomed to live a thousand years in a withered old stage.

Where our sibyls are located on the Chapel ceiling

Where our sibyls are located on the Chapel ceiling

Since we think of her as an old woman, Michelangelo decided to paint her this way. The sybil is reading aloud from one of her books of oracles. Two genii, or guardian spirits, stand behind her listening as they hold another clasped book ready for her to read. She is reading with keen, searching eyes in a stern manner. She also has large, strong features that underscore the determination of her character.

Her face is not gentle and pleasing, but is full of meaning. There is a record of centuries that have passed over her head, which have brought her the deep secrets of life. Yet the prophecies are yet to be filled, and there is a look of unsatisfied longing in her old withered face.

The outlines of the Cumaean sibyl are drawn in a oval figure similar to the Delphic sibyl shown below. The oval is more elongated, and the left side is broken midway by the book.

Delphic Sibyl By Michelangelo

Delphic Sibyl By Michelangelo

In contrast, Michelangelo’s Delphic sibyl, shown immediately above, is the youngest and most beautiful of them all. She presided over the temple of Apollo in the Greek town of Delphi. She has the splendid stature of an Amazon with her head draped with a sort of Greek turban, beneath which her hair escapes in flying curls. Her face and expression show her to be unlike an ordinary woman. She has the look of a startled fawn, which has suddenly heard the call of a distant voice. She turns with the attitude of listening. There are other  pictures of this same sibyl carrying a crown of thorns showing that she predicted the sufferings of Christ, which may be the reason for sorrowful expression in her wide eyes. The scroll in her left hand is the scroll of prophecy. The two figures holding the book behind her are, again, genii, which are symbolic of her inspiration.

The painting of the Delphic sybil presents an interesting study in the composition of lines. Starting from the topmost point of the turban, draw a line on the right, coming across the shoulder along the outer edge of the drapery to the toe. On the left, let the line connecting the same two points follow the outer curve of the scroll, along the slanting edge of the mantle, and we get a beautiful pointed oval as the basis of the composition.

The sibyl’s left arm drops a curve across the upper part of the figure, and the curve is repeated a little lower down by the creases in the drapery across the lap. Such are the few strong and simple lines that compose the picture, producing a grandeur which a confusion of many lines would entirely spoil.

Much can be learned by studying the works of masters. Instead of seeing paintings like these just as pretty pictures, it is fun and educational to dig a little deeper to understand what story the artist was trying to tell in the moment of time captured by the piece. Are we just painting pretty pictures or are we trying to tell a story? Are we then trying to apply the elements of good design to magnify the artistic quality of our work? These are important questions to ask when we approach our painting subjects. I will certaining be thinking about this post when I head downstairs in a few minutes to begin blocking in my next painting.

Have a great weekend!

Category: Fine Art and Painting

Comments (5)

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  1. Really good article. Michelangelo took his work far deeper than most artists today (myself included?). So much has changed since the days of the Sistine Chapel, though the principle of communicating a message in our work hasn’t.

    And so now you’re painting. I’m envious! Let’s have a look when you’re finished.

  2. Pam Holnback says:

    Love the quick review. Have you read the Agony and the Ecstasy?

  3. Chris Wray says:

    Most of Michelangelo’s female figures were rendered from male models–a common practice during the Renaissance. If you Google The Libyan Sibyl, for example, you’ll see his red chalk drawing is clearly a male figure, yet the model is transformed into a Hellenic female in his final painting, a standard for feminine beauty in Michelangelo’s time. It’s interesting to see how the standard for the “body beautiful” has shifted over the centuries.

  4. AutumnLeaves says:

    I am currently reading a book about just this subject, different author. I haven’t tread too far into it yet, however, the author does state that Michelangelo wanted to incorporate his personal set of beliefs into his work in the Sistine Chapel and that those beliefs were not in direct agreement with the stand of the Catholic church. If I can get past the slightly drier style of writing, I am looking forward to more!

  5. Lee says:

    Hi Pam. I am going to rent the movie of that book from Netflix! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Interesting Chris. Donna said they looked like men!

    Hi Sherry. What is the name of your book? I am always looking for recommendations for good art reading material.