In the rows of figures which Michelangelo painted along the arched portion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the prophets are associated with sibyls. Hence, in the plan of decoration, there comes first the figure of a man, and then the figure of a woman.

Now, as the Bible contains no allusion to sibyls, it may seem strange that they should have a place in a series of Bible illustrations, and especially that they should appear side by side with the prophets. To explain this, we must learn something about the sibyls.

They were women of ancient times supposed to have supernatural gifts of foretelling the future. They devoted themselves to solitude and meditation, and sometimes lived apart in caves or grottoes. Sometimes they were connected with temples, and delivered what were supposed to be the messages of the gods to the worshippers. These messages were called oracles, and were greatly revered by the people who consulted the gods.

Some of the sibyls' words of wisdom were committed to writing and passed down to following generations. Though they lived in heathen countries, the tradition ran that they prophesied the advent of Christ. There is a passage in one of Virgil's eclogues (the fourth) upon which the supposition is based. Early in the Christian era, when men were spreading the new faith, they made much of these sibylline prophecies to add weight to their teachings.

In former times, fact and fable were very often confused, and people did not take pains to distinguish the legends of the sibyls from the history of the prophets. When the Latin hymn "Dies Irae" was written, the sibyl was mentioned, with the prophet, as predicting the final destruction of the world. Many painters and sculptors gave the two equal honor in the same way. In the prevailing opinion, the sibyls shared with the prophets an inspired foreknowledge of the Christian faith.

The nine main panels of Michelangelo's ceiling decoration show how man was created, and how he was tempted and fell into sin. To carry on still further the story of the human race, the painter shows the succession of men and women, prophets and sibyls, who, one after another, predicted the redemption of the world in Christ. On the side walls, below these figures, the story is carried to completion in a series of pictures illustrating the life of Christ. The last named frescoes were painted by various artists some years before Michelangelo's work on the ceiling.

The number of sibyls was given as ten or twelve, and of these Michelangelo selected five. His ideahere, as with the prophets, seemed to be to represent some in old age and some in youth.

THE DELPHIC SIBYL. Sistine Chapel, Rome.
THE DELPHIC SIBYL. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

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The Delphic sibyl is the youngest and most beautiful of them all. She presided over the temple of Apollo in the Greek town of Delphi, where it was long customary for the priestess, or pythia, as she was called, to be a young woman selected from some family of poor country people.

The temple at Delphi was one of great celebrity. In the centre was a small opening in the ground, whence arose an intoxicating vapor, and over this sat the pythia, on a three-legged seat, or tripod, and delivered the oracle communicated to her by the god. These oracles were delivered in verse.

The Delphic sibyl, or pythia, of Michelangelo's picture, has the splendid stature of an Amazon. Her head is draped with a sort of Greek turban, beneath which her hair escapes in flying curls. Her face and expression show her at once to be unlike an ordinary woman. She has the look of a startled fawn, which has suddenly heard the call of a distant voice. She turns her head in the attitude of one listening. She looks far away with eyes that see visions, but what those visions are none can guess. There are other pictures of the same sibyl carrying a crown of thorns, showing that she predicted the sufferings of Christ. Perhaps this is the meaning of the sorrowful expression in these wide eyes.

The scroll which she unrolls in her left hand is the scroll of her prophecy. The two little figures holding a book, just behind her right shoulder, are genii, or spirits, symbolic of her inspiration. One reads eagerly from the volume while the other listens with rapt attention.

The picture makes a very interesting study in the composition of lines. Starting from the topmost point of the turban, draw a line on the right, coming across the shoulder along the outer edge of the drapery to the toe. On the left, let the line connecting the same two points follow the outer curve of the scroll, along the slanting edge of the mantle, and we get a beautiful pointed oval as the basis of the composition.

The sibyl's left arm drops a curve across the upper part of the figure, and this curve is repeated a little lower down by the creases in the drapery across the lap. Such are the few strong, simple lines which compose the picture, producing an effect of grandeur which a confusion of many lines would entirely spoil.