Reviving the Sibyls in 15th-Century Rome

Throughout the development of Renaissance Rome a flourishing revival of the Eternal City’s classical origins took place. A notable symptom of this is the renewed interest in the pagan sibyls in Rome’s visual culture from 1400. These prophetesses, having received little attention from patrons and artists throughout the Middle Ages, suddenly appeared widespread across Rome in various domestic and ecclesiastical buildings. More significantly still, this was the first time these women were given a secure iconography and identifiable attributes, breaking with the tradition practiced by artists such as Giovanni Pisano and Benozzo Gozzoli to only identify, sometimes only depict, the Erythraean Sibyl.

In Rome one can find monumental images of the sibyls by such artists as Pintoricchio, Filippino Lippi, Raphael and Michelangelo, all emerging in the 15th or 16thcenturies. This sudden re-emergence has caused scholars to question the reasons why these women were subject to such enthusiastic resurgence. Robin Raybould recently commented that this came about as a result of the rise in interest in the sanctity of Marian cults following a series of disasters which shook Rome in the 14th century: ‘What better servants and icons of the Mother of God than the women who, according to St. Jerome (Adversus Jovianum 1.41), because of their own virginity, were worthy to receive and communicate the word of God.’

The emergence of a solid, humanist iconography for the sibyls can be dated back to a commission of Cardinal Giordano Orsini. In the 1420s the cardinal ordered for the camera paramenti of his palace in Rome to be decorated with frescoes of the twelve sibyls, as described by Lactantius and Augustine after the writings of ancient Roman scholar Varro (116-27 BC). although these frescoes no longer survive, they were faithfully copied by Baccio Baldini in a set of engravings. It was these sibyls which formed the basis for subsequent depictions across Rome. In Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Santa Maria della Pace, the Sistine Chapel and many other spaces one can encounter diverse approaches to painting the sibyls, from the delicate feminine forms of Filippino Lippi to the weighty muscularity of Michelangelo. Renaissance images of sibyls can read as wonderful case studies in the differing styles of artists, in the navigation of gender issues in images of women, and in the careful consideration of pagan images in Christian contexts.

Reference: Robin Raybould, The Sibyl Series of the Fifteenth Century, Leiden: Brill, 2016.


Baccio Baldini, Tiburtine Sibyl, c.1470-80, engraving, British Museum.

Filippino Lippi, Delphic Sibyl, 1489-91, fresco, Carafa Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Raphael, Sibyls, c.1514, fresco, Santa Maria della Pace, Rome.

Giovanni Pisano, Sibyl and Angel, 1301, marble, Sant’Andrea, Pistoia.

Michelangelo, Libyan Sibyl, 1511, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Rome.

(Images: Web Gallery of Art)


Further Reading: Charles Dempsey, The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Posted by: Matthew Whyte

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