Don’t mess with a prophetess. At least not the ones portrayed by Michelangelo because you might get your ass kicked. One of the many highlights of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is his depiction of the Libyan Sibyl, female prophet of classical mythology. Let’s take a look at it:
Now let’s take a look at Michelangelo’s preparatory sketch for the Libyan Sibyl:
Ok, what’s wrong with this picture? Anybody? Yeah, it’s pretty obvious. The model for the sketch was clearly a male. One of Michelangelo’s studio assistants to be exact.
Before I get to my main theme, I just want to point out that the pose of the Libyan Sibyl, especially as it’s represented in the final painting, really rocks. Amazing. The strength and movement just jumps right out at you, and the contrapposto twist in the shoulders oozes motion. It showcases the human body in a truly extraordinary way. Active, assertive, but still beautiful and elegant. Throw in the the pivot and pressure coming from the left big toe (also practiced in the drawing as you can see) and you have a stunning image. Look at the angles and the architecture. Great, great pose.
Michelangelo’s attraction to the male form, both aesthetically and emotionally, is fairly common knowledge. But even if we put aside Michelangelo’s homosexuality, we know that the male figure was widely regarded as the height of beauty during the Renaissance period, far superior to that of the female. Michelangelo was certainly not the only artist of the age to employ only male models, but we can infer that he derived extra special pleasure from the experience.
With all due respect for art history, the great masterpieces, and gifted genuises like Michelangelo, I’m going to segue into a terribly superficial mindset, so please forgive me in advance. Maybe it’s because I’m female AND an art model. Or maybe I was swayed by a bawdy remark made by one of my artist friends a couple of years ago, who said that female figures in Renaissance art “all look like male stone masons in the nude with a pair of tits slapped on”. Yes, that provoked many a chuckle when it was uttered, and I was one of several people who were in earshot. When artists express opinions, they can be pretty blunt! But still his basic premise was accurate. Let’s face it. That old practice of using men as models for female figures produced a lot of art in which the women look, well, let’s just say “butch”. Somewhat “estrogen-deprived”. A little “gender dysmorphic”. You get the idea.
Michelangelo painted a total of five Sibyls in the fresco. Here is the Erythraean Sibyl. Remember, the Sibyls are female:
The Delphic Sibyl:
The Cumaean Sibyl:
No, no, no, I’m sorry. That last one is way over the top. That shit ain’t right. Michelangelo is just messing with our heads with the Cumaean. That’s just . . . just . . . wrong! What the hell is going on there?? That IS a stone mason!
Now I have had many unorthodox things done with my body – and then I became an art model. (naughty joke alert! HAHAHAHA!). No really, I’ve seen myself depicted in less than realistic ways, with artists’ hands taking freestyle liberties with my body parts. But I always appear female. Also, I’ve seen beginning artists toil away, trying to learn the differences between male and female anatomy, and reflect them in their drawings – those key places which hold the physical characteristics of the genders: shoulders, waist, hips. And then here’s Michelangelo scoffing at all of it, paying no mind to those characteristics and distinctions. He says to us, “Even though I used a male model from life this is a female, and you will accept it! Case closed”.
In concluding this post I will faithfully stay within my superficial mindset, and assert that while probably no artist in history depicted the male figure better than Michelangelo, females not so much. But when Michelangelo’s males are supposed to be male, they are sublime. And his own intimate love and admiration for the male form can be profoundly felt by all who view his masculine creations. There are so many amazing male figures in the Sistine Chapel, but my personal favorite has always been Adam:
Study for Adam: