Michelangelo’s rendering of the Libyan Sibyl
Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!
~ “Song of the Cumaean Sibyl” from Virgil’s Eclogues, IV
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old. … She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
~ Luke 2:36-37
As we approach Christmas, the day we celebrate as the first arrival of Messiah, for my second essay celebrating this blessed season of Advent I call upon the union of ancient traditions; of women prophets whom in both biblical and pagan sources were called oracles, seers, prophets, prophetesses and by a term you may not be familiar with, the Sibyl, after the Greek word for prophetess (sibulla) who were resident at shrines and temples throughout the Classical World.
I first learned of the Sibyl over 30 years ago when our high-school choir performed Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Studying and singing that masterpiece is where I, as a teenager, first taught myself to read Latin. Here is the text of “Dies Irae”:
Dies iræ! Dies illa
â€¨Solvet sæclum in favilla:
â€¨Teste David cum Sibylla!
[English:] The day of wrath, that day
â€¨Will dissolve the world in ashes
â€¨As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
Remarkably, in Homer’s epic poems “Iliad” and “Odyssey” (8th century B.C.) there are no references to Sibyls. Their first mention was in a fragment by Heraclitus in the 5th century B.C. that declared the Sibyl’s fundamental role in society with this revealing passage:
The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.
Christians were especially impressed with the Cumaean Sibyl, for in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue (see epigram) she foretells the coming of a savior – “a new progeny of Heaven” would bring about a return of the “Golden Age” – which classicists have long associated as a conspicuous reference not only to the poet’s patron but as one early Christians identified as Jesus. Historians believe it was for this reason the Italian poet Dante chose the legendary Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) to accompany him on his epic adventures into hell, purgatory and heaven in his immortal “Divine Comedy” (1308-21).
After Virgil, the Christian emperor Constantine (272-337), in his Oration to the Assembly of Saints, interpreted Virgil’s entire Eclogues as a prophecy of the coming of Christ, and quoted extended passages from the Sibylline Oracles (Book VIII) containing an acrostic in which the initials form a progression of verses read: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour Cross.
It was 500 years ago that the genius of Michelangelo exploded onto the Sistine Chapel ceiling for us to witness in awe and to learn from through the ages. The Sistine Chapel ceiling has five pendentives along each side and the two at either end. It was here where Michelangelo painted the largest figures on the ceiling: 12 Old Testament prophets who foretold the birth of Christ. Of those 12, four were major prophets of Israel, three were minor prophets and were male. The remaining five were prophets of the Classical World, called Sibyls, and were female. The geographical range where these women prophets resided was vast, with Michelangelo’s Sibyls coming from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia.
Think about all of the critical epiphany experiences in your life and how many of them were made with the judicious advice of a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, a sister, a niece, a godmother or some other important prophetic woman, like a saintly church mother whose quiet and constant divine voice kept us from big trouble even when they weren’t around. These women are in a sense all modern-day Sibyls sent to us by God to keep our path away from eternal death and toward eternal life in Jesus Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith.”
Where would Israel be without Abraham’s wife, Sarah? Isaac’s wife, Rebekah? The wives and concubines of Jacob who birthed the 12 tribes of Israel, from whose loins Judah, the fourth son, descended the genealogy of Jesus Christ? What about Naomi, Ruth, Tamar, Hannah, Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3), Huldah, Deborah, Mary Magdalene and Anna the prophet (who witnessed the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem)? And what about every one of the 40 authors of the Bible? They were all loved, nurtured and taught the Word of God by some wise, prayerful, prophetic mother whom the ancients called the Sibyl.
In conclusion, carefully examine Michelangelo’s painting above of the Libyan Sibyl. Study her form, her face, her feet, her muscular neck, shoulders, arms, the colors, clothing and background; but particularly observe the way the artist has her poised as she has received the Word of God, written it down and is at that precise moment handing God’s precious words down to us, to all humanity that we may live “by every word the proceedeth out of the mouth of God” and not die under God’s inevitable judgment.
Look at her face, look at the love, the resplendent care and self-less devotion the Sibyl has to her singular duty as a half mortal, half divine entity – to take the message that God has spoken to her, to write down every word without alteration, without embellishment, to fulfill her sacred function to give God’s holy Word to all the world.
During this Advent season, in the same transcendent manner Michelangelo commemorated for the ages the five Sibyls, who were celebrated throughout antiquity as the very mouth of God yet now have largely been forgotten, let us not forget all those wonderful, prophetic women in our own lives who have in some profound way helped us along this Pilgrim journey we call life.