One hundred and seventeen

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Studies for the Libyan Sibyl

1508-12 by Michelangelo Buonarroti
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This preparatory drawing was for the Libyan Sibyl, one of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Phemonoe, the Libyan Sibyl, was the prophetic love child of Zeus and Lamia, a Libyan queen, and tales tell of her chanting oracles. It is interesting that Michelangelo has used a male model to draw his studies for a portrayal of a female, telling perhaps of what was appropriate when it came to life drawing in the sixteenth-century. The idea that someone would study the body of man in detail, only to turn him into the figure of a woman (with an un-provocative agenda) is now slightly absurd, especially in light of this figure’s muscular definition. However, Michelangelo draws in the wake of the many Roman sculptures that approached their bodily depiction as such; women were often as muscular as the men. There is something to be said about the strength demonstrated in the deep contours of this figure’s muscular tone; not only illustrative of power and might, this drawing is also a celebration of man’s potential, the natural beauty of what a body can become through perseverance. This is particularly appropriate in a depiction of a God; it is only right that this mythical creature’s supremacy of mind is reflected in her outward depiction. Of course the exposing of natural beauty’s potential is as much down to Michelangelo’s mindset of painting as any reality of rippling of muscle. Such delicacy in execution, such soft and subtle shading and the precise perspective on details such as the hands and feet, contribute to the quiet magnitude this drawing possesses.

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