Oct 112007

Michelangelo’s foreshortening of the arms is uncompromising, and consequently the illusion of space is overwhelming in its realism. He uses both architecture and human form to forge a three dimensional presence: the stony perspectives provide the rigor, while the soft, fluent motions fill up, and enliven the angular contours.

The artist creates a complex interplay between the painted architectonic and human elements; that they both cover a ceiling of a structure to be filled by people of God — and apparently God himself — only adds a meta layer to the complexity.

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The Sistine Chapel; Ceili…
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The sibyl’s extremities accord with the neck and the face in a convincing harmony — a classic pyramidal hierarchy. To consolidate the scene into a unified composition as a whole, the artist relates the prophetess to the figures behind, juxtaposing their heads, arms, and legs (a trademark method appearing in some of the sculptor’s earlier works).

To achieve balance in space, Michelangelo makes the sibyl turn her limbs to one direction, and the face and gaze to a countering one. While below torso the figure is mostly static, above it it demonstrates a broad, sweeping, arching motion, echoed by the open scroll and the swollen cloak.

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Delphic Sibyl
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The garment consists of three parts: a cool blue mantle that also functions as head gear, and a double layered toga, one layer colored a warm green, another a hot orange and gold. Though covering most of the body, the clothing nonetheless accentuates the sitter’s chest and waistline, suggesting a young and physically attractive female.

Indeed, although the arms reveal some musculature (it becomes more pronounced in other sibyls), the face of the subject is one of Michelangelo’s most explicitly feminine — and beautiful. Her startled, alarmed expression seems to confirm her young age.

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Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Delphic Sibyl
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The sybil looks away from what is written, apparently in distress from what the future portends — and what she must disclose. In comparison, the Persian and the Cumaean sibyls are both depicted thoroughly absorbed by their reading, clutching their tomes with both hands, staring intently at the pages. Their faces, however, are mostly shaded, and clearly not as beautiful — their apparel is less suggestive, covering the female form with angular folds.

Perhaps Michelangelo was trying to express a common colloquialism — one of many involving wisdom and age — or perhaps he was relying on such a colloquialism as a guiding concept. Either way, the Delphic sibyl more readily shows her face than reads — and eventually injects this series of mythological women with a fresh, youthful spirit.

*this article has been edited at a later date

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