Arts & Tradition

Sistine Ceiling’s Prophets and Sibyls Ponder Heaven’s Message

BY Yvonne Marcotte TIMEMarch 20, 2022 PRINT

The musty smell of lime plaster fills the air just under the chapel’s ceiling. The artist works quickly on each section of the fresco as he stands on a scaffold platform 68 feet above the floor.

Along the perimeter of the high barrel vault of the Sistine Chapel, Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti paints 12 prophetic figures—seven male and five female. The artist depicts the figures as deep in thought, or reading, writing, and listening to God speaking to them.

Visitors today who stretch their necks as they bend their heads back to look at the figures may wonder if the prophets have a message for our time.

Ancient Seers

Michelangelo selected certain male prophets from the Old Testament: Jonah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, Isaiah, and Daniel. We are familiar with their stories from the Bible. Jonah feared giving people bad news and tried to run away but was swallowed by a big fish. Jeremiah was said to have cried when he foretold of Jerusalem’s destruction. Ezekiel also prophesied about Jerusalem’s destruction but said Israel would be restored. ​Joel admonished people to repent. Zechariah prophesied that Jesus would enter Jerusalem. Isaiah told of Jesus’s suffering. Daniel was known to interpret dreams and survived when thrown in a lion’s den.

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Daniel, 1508–1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco; 155 5/8 inches by 149 5/8 inches. Sistine Chapel, Rome. (Public Domain)

Not as well-known are the female seers, known as sibyls: Persian, Erythraean, Delphic, Cumaean, and Libyan. The Erythraean Sibyl gave prophecies at the Apollo Oracle at Erythrae in Ionia on the western coast of Turkey. The Persian Sibyl in northern Africa foretold the exploits of Alexander the Great. The Libyan Sibyl prophesied at the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon in the Libyan Desert. The Cumaean Sibyl presided at the Apollo Oracle at Cumae, near Naples, Italy. The Delphic Sibyl made divinations at the famous oracle of Delphi, Greece. Michelangelo included the sibyls of the classical world to say that the prophetic message is meant not only for religious believers but also for all of mankind.

Balanced Composition

It was said that Michelangelo would not allow assistants to work on the ceiling with him because they did not have sufficient skill, so he did all the work. It took four years and was completed in 1512. Each powerful figure is shown within a painted marble enclosure. Aware of the height a figure was to be seen from, he used the technique of “di sotto in sù” (“seen from below”), which changes the way the figures are seen from a distance.

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Ezekiel, 1508–1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco; 155 5/8 inches by 149 5/8 inches. Sistine Chapel, Rome. (Public Domain)

The artist planned the placement of each figure with care. He placed Jeremiah, who prophesied Jesus’s suffering, at the front of the composition and Jonah, whose life foretold Jesus’s resurrection, at the other end. Along the long ends, each prophet is set across from a sibyl. The figures are seated on monumental thrones as they read manuscripts, books, or scrolls. Each figure has his or her name in Latin, below on a painted plaque.

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Delphic Sibyl, 1508–1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco; 155 5/8 inches by 149 5/8 inches. Sistine Chapel, Rome. (Public Domain)

Some are portrayed as young and vigorous; others have white hair and wrinkles yet are strongly built. Males and females alike have well-muscled bodies. Their robes and gowns are full and colorful and shown in depth. The artist’s strong realistic painting technique shows shadows as the robes whip, swirl, and fold around the figures.

The figures appear alert and anxious as they absorb the message, yet what they read animates them. Perhaps they are concerned about mankind because they have been told what will happen. They ponder, consider, and mull over what they must tell mankind. They twist and turn while pondering God’s messages.

The Libyan Sibyl highlights Michelangelo’s mastery of the human body. A preliminary chalk sketch shows how the artist depicted the body’s muscular structure. “Her complex pose in the fresco, evidently requiring study in numerous drawings, plays on the arrested motion of her stepping down from the throne, while holding an enormous open book of prophecy which she is about to close,” as stated in a Metropolitan Museum analysis. We can see how the body maintains its balance in the beautifully extended big toe as the figure twists around.

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Libyan Sibyl, 1508–1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco; 155 5/8 inches by 149 5/8 inches. Sistine Chapel, Rome. (Public Domain)

The figures respond to voices, as shown in the image of Ezekiel. As if aware of God speaking to him, he lifts his head and looks out. An invisible breeze ruffles his cloak as he sits up, alert.

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Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510–1511, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red and white chalk; 11 3/8 inches by 8 7/16 inches. Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

The main figures in each enclosure are not alone. The artist placed two putti, or young boys, to serve each prophet; some light candles and others hold manuscripts. Around each marble enclosure are male nudes, which Michelangelo called “ignudi,” but their purpose is unclear.

The project exhausted the artist who at that time was at the peak of his career and in great demand. He is reputed to have said: “I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”

Message of Hope

 At the darkest hour when evil infects all aspects of life, prophets urge people to adjust their moral compass, embrace virtue, and repent of their sins. When prophets give dire warnings for people to change their ways, they do indeed make people very uncomfortable. Eugene H. Peterson said,  “The task of the prophet is not to smooth things over but to make things right.”

For millennia, people have awaited the Chosen One who will free mankind from the forces of evil. Those who turn to goodness can rest easy when looking up at the majestic figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Their message gives hope that the best is yet to come.

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