Venus De Milo-How She Might Have Looked

The unexpected discovery of one of the most famous statues in history

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

The Venus de Milo has the incongruous distinction of being one of the most well-known objects in art and yet it remains an enigma.

The story of the statue’s discovery is shrouded in romantic mystique, and historians can only speculate on how she might have looked in her original form.

And yet the Venus de Milo continues to engross those who spend time looking at her. Carved in marble, partially nude, and wearing an inscrutable expression on her face — perhaps one of confidence — her story is a remarkable one.

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

An unexpected discovery

Sometimes known also as Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo was carved in marble sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The circumstance of the sculpture’s original creation is a mystery, but it is known that at some point it found itself interred in a small cavern or niche on the Greek island of Milos and left for hundreds of years.

Then, in the spring of 1820, a farmer by the name of Yorgos Kentrotas was roaming the rugged countryside in search of stones to use as building materials, when he stumbled upon a sealed chamber in a wall. Removing some of the stones, he found this antique treasure within its depths.

The statue was considerably damaged: split into several parts with its arms missing and a fractured plinth. Moreover, unbeknownst to those who first saw her, she had lost her original decorative colouration — since the sculpture was probably painted in vivid colours and adorned with jewellery as was the custom at the time.

For many years, it was believed to have been created by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But as the years passed, more evidence was uncovered, namely an inscription found on a fragment of the plinth giving the name of Alexandros of Antioch — which was lost shortly after its arrival at the Louvre in 1821.

Its journey to the museum in Paris began when a French naval officer named Olivier Voutier anchored his ship in the harbour at Milos. Going ashore to hunt for antiquities near an old theatre, he noticed the local farmer Kentrotas had found something interesting.

The Frenchman felt certain that the sculpture was important and convinced his local vice-consul to buy it. They paid a good price for it. The statue came to France in 1821 and was given to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre Museum, and there it remains today.

An extreme posture

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Two distinct features of the Venus de Milo give the sculpture its memorable and inimitable charge.

The first is the extreme contrapposto posture, which describes the way the figure’s weight is shifted onto one standing leg. This is what gives the whole statue its natural “S-curve”.

In the case of the Venus de Milo, the twist of the hips and the kink in the left leg are unusually pronounced. Look again at the statue and let your eyes explore the shape of the form suggested by the beautifully modelled drapery of her robe.

The second aspect is the low waistline of the robe, which appears to be almost slipping off her hips, giving the sculpture more than a hint of eroticism.

It is this eroticism that provides the basis for the most likely identification of the statue as Venus, the goddess of Love — the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite.

How she might have looked

The Venus de Milo was originally found in several pieces, making her exact original form a matter of conjecture. The three main pieces that were recovered from Milos — the nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and a section of the right hip — seemed to fit together without controversy.

The fact of her missing arms prompted the local Milos farmer to continue to dig. He later found a hand holding an apple, two herms — square stone pillars with a carved head on top — and a further fragment of an upper arm.

A proposed restoration of the Venus de Milo (1916) by Adolf Furtwängler incorporating the arm fragments found with the statue at the time of its discovery.

Various artists and historians proposed how these parts might be assembled to form the complete statue, with some debate as to whether the stone pillars with heads on top were connected with the Venus statue.

In the latter years of the 19th century, the German archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler sketched out what might be the most convincing configuration, in which the figure’s left arm is resting on an unadorned pillar, with her hand resting on the pillar holding an apple.

The hand holding the apple, carved from the same Parian marble as the figure, seemed to confirm the identity of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Classical beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris, Paris gave the prize of the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War.

Furtwängler rejected the idea that the herms were part of the original form, arguing that the aesthetic effect of such an arrangement would be “distinctly unpleasing”.

Given the inability of historians to agree upon the sculpture’s original form, the Louvre made the decision to show the Venus de Milo without its arms or an adjacent pillar. Two centuries later, standing alone yet somehow indomitable, the sculpture continues to be an all-important part of the museum’s collection.

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This Mythical Painting Still Puzzles Art Historians

Dare you enter this enigmatic scene?

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London,

A painting like this deserves to be looked at for more than just a few moments. It is at once a puzzle, a warning and work of eroticism.

At the centre of the image, a boyish youth clasps a woman’s breast whilst leaning forward to kiss her. They are, in fact, mother and son.

Several features about this painting are immediately striking. The way the boy — Cupid — sticks out his buttocks provocatively; the unadulterated smile on the lips of the woman; or what about the young girl in green behind, under whose dress it’s possible to see the scaly body of a lizard?

As for what the painting is trying to say, historians have long debated the exact meaning — and the conclusions are striking.

Mother and son kiss

The two central figures are both naked. They are supposed to be Venus and her son Cupid.

The two figures are locked in an embrace, with Venus coyly stealing one of Cupid’s arrows. Their kiss is pleasurable, their desire unrestrained.

It’s possible to recognise Venus, goddess of love and beauty, by the golden apple she is holding in her left hand, given to her by Paris when he judged her to be the most beautiful of all goddesses in a contest. A pair of doves — her traditional attribute — sit at the corner of the painting.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

Her son Cupid is shown as a winged child. His attributes are a bow, arrow and quiver. When Cupid fires his arrows, those who are hit become lovers — or occasionally, as romance can sometimes go, sworn enemies.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

This strange image is made even more curious by way that the two figures are posed, with each adopting a twisted, winding posture. It is most likely an influence of the Mannerist ideal of figura serpentinata, an idealised style of depicting figures that came into fashion in the late stages of the Renaissance. Originally formulated by the 16th century art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, who compared the figura serpentinata to a burning flame, the serpentine shape was designed to emphasise bodily movement and potency.

One further detail in the foreground that catches our eye is a laughing child who is about to throw a bunch of rose petals over them — in celebration of their liaison.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

But look very closely and you’ll notice the laughing child is actually stepping on a twig of thorns and has pierced his foot. It is thought the child symbolises Foolish Pleasure or Folly — representing the lack of wisdom in the central characters.

And so, the meaning of this complex painting starts to become clear…

Love with a sting in the tail

It’s hard to look past the overt eroticism of this painting, most especially in the way Cupid grasps Venus’ breast and nipple. The painting was probably made at the request of the Florentine ruler Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. It is thought that he commissioned the artist, Bronzino, and had the painting sent on to King Francis I of France as a gift.

Notoriously lecherous in his appetites, the King of France would have taken pleasure in the conspicuous eroticism of the work, as well as the erudite puzzle it presented.

So, what is the deeper meaning?

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is thought that the whole painting is an allegory on the dangers of unbridled desire.

Take the girl in green with the scaly body hidden beneath her dress, for instance. She leans forward, proffering a sweet honeycomb in her right hand — whilst behind her back a long winding tail has a scorpion’s barb at its end. This dual-nature represents Deceit, or else the double-edged nature of love: pleasure and pain.

The other figures in the painting similarly emphasise the conflicts that might accompany unchaste romance.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

In the upper section, an old man who represents Father Time (notice the hourglass on his shoulder) sweeps a rich undulating blue fabric across the scene. It is thought that the gesture implies the fleeting nature of time and how things may come to an end at any moment.

This interpretation is given added meaning by the figure shown opposite Time, who has eyeless sockets and a mask-like face, who is thought to signify Oblivion — the eternal nothingness that may face us after death.

The subject of death seems even more present when we turn our attention to the figure below on the left side of the painting. This hell-raised woman has been painted with extraordinary vigour.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is believed she is a representation of Jealousy, or possibly Suffering with her expression of anguish. Alternatively, this tormented figure might represent the ravaging and sometimes deadly effects of syphilis — a disease that had reached epidemic levels during the 1500s, especially in France.

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

And so, when seen altogether, this claustrophobic painting begins to lose some of its salaciousness and take on a somewhat darker, chilling tone.

The unpleasant consequences of illicit or wanton lust are revealed like a riddle solved, encouraged by Folly and aided by Deceit.

Dare you enter this pleasure palace?

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Repoussoir-To Push Back

Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?

A powerful trick that so many paintings employ

Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, United States.

It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.

On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.

The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?

Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna (c.1639) by Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.

Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…

Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.

The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.

So what’s happening in all of these paintings?

Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.

The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)

In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.

Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. Kunst Museum Winterthur.

Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.

The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.

(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.

Detail of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.

Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.

The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.

In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.

The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

Narcissus—Caravaggio

The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Sibyl Went from Sketch to Finished Painting

A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored

Detail of ‘Studies for The Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.

The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.

Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.

Sistine Chapel ceiling (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s commission

Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.

The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.

Studies for The Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US

The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.

For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.

The ceiling

The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.

Sistine Chapel ceiling with The Libyan Sibyl highlighted (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.

The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.

Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.

One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.

This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.

The Libyan Sibyl

Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.

The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.

Left: Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US. Image source The Met. Right: The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.

The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.

The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.

Detail from ‘Studies for the Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.

The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.

Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”