Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl and study

Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of seeing both of these works by Michelangelo in person, and I was knocked out by both.

The first is the finished (and somewhat controversially restored) Libyan Sibyl form the astonishing ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome.

To my mind, it is the highpoint of that remarkable series of frescoes. The figure is dynamically twisted, her form palpably dimensional in space. You can almost hear the draperies of her gown slide across one another as she moves. Even looking up to the height of the ceiling from the floor of the chapel, it is a stunning work.

The preliminary drawing for the same figure is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and is stunning in a different, but to me, equally powerful way. It is one of my favorite old master drawings.

There is no intention here of producing a finished piece to please someone else. This drawing is the result of intense observation and masterful economy of notation, from which the artist would pull information for painting the fresco.

Michelangelo has posed his model in that dynamic twist, using a male model to represent the muscular back of the Sibyl as she lifts the leaves of her enormous book. In the drawing, even as he searches for just the right line and position, he has distilled both the linear and tonal essence of the form to one of the finest examples of the art of pure drawing I’ve ever seen.

A sibyl is a priestess, ostensibly one capable of prophecy. The Libyan Sibyl, according to classical mythology, is one who foresaw a day when “that which is hidden shall be revealed”.

In his portrayals of the Libyan Sibyl, both dramatically finished and intimately personal, Michelangelo has revealed the essence of his art.


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