The intense focus with which Michelangelo depicts the biblical prophets, including Ezekiel and Jeremiah, helps to distance them — on a visual as well as on a notional level — from hedonistic physicality of the sibyls. In a way, the discrepancy between Jewish prophets (clarity of motion, simplicity and singularity of focus) and Greek ones (whimsical, elaborate, dance-like movements) reflects the difference between monotheism and paganism.
Unlike the forceful and denouncing Ezekiel, Joel appears steeped in thought and letters. The former pushed the scroll in his hand to the margin, Joel brings it to the center of attention, turning his own attention to the written word rather than to imaginary sinners. The legs and torso, forming a single diagonal column, lead up to the prophet’s face, and eventually gaze; the eyes reverse the direction down, back towards the scroll — creating a powerful turnabout that underscores the protagonist’s intensity.
Once again, the supporting cast in the background mirrors and comments on the events in the foreground. One head replicates that of the prophet’s, almost like an echo replica growing from a shoulder — reiterating his views. The figure on the other side provides visual balance, and some additional insight on Joel’s activity: holding a book, he participates in a debate with the other boy, discussing what has been read.
The climax of this scene remains Joel’s facial expression. It captivates the viewer immediately, revealing a very animated character; it shows wisdom, disdain, and concentration at once. Via this face, Michelangelo infused an essentially static activity with an underlying sense of continuous, current-like movement, of “a train of thought” — bringing to the surface the biblical prophet’s inner life.
*this article has been edited at a later date