The Delphic Sibyl | Art for Easter 7C

The Delphic Sibyl
The Delphic Sibyl
1509
Fresco, 350 x 380 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
MICHELANGELO Buonarroti
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Click image for more information.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Delphic Sibyl (detail from the Sistine Chapel), fresco, 1509, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

In Greek mythology, Gaia (mother earth) assigned a very large serpent called Python to guard the shrine at Delphi; the shrine’s location was believed to be the navel of the earth. Apollo killed the serpent and claimed the shrine as his own. The serpent rotted and the place became known as Pytho (Greek: meaning “rot”). The prophetesses at Apollo’s shrine were called, “Pythia” and there was a prevalent belief that the spirit of the dead serpent, Python, was still there and spoke through them. In Acts (16:16), a fortune telling slave girl was described as having “…a spirit of Python.” This was to say she was like the prophetesses at Delphi.

In the ancient world, a sibyl (Greek: meaning “prophetess”) was a woman who was believed to have the ability to foretell the future. Sibyls were the subject of legends and myths, and stories about them varied. Their origins were obscure. The Delphic Sibyl was said to have been the daughter of an immortal nymph and a sea monster. Other sources say she was thought to be a sister or daughter of Apollo. She was known to make her prophecies in the precinct of Apollo but she was not the same as Pythia, the priestess at the oracle. Sibyls sometimes remained in a particular locale but others were known to wander from place to place and live in caves.

Among Christians, sibyls were regarded as pagans yet when their prophecies coincided with those of biblical prophets their words tended to be acknowledged. The belief that Jesus came for everyone – gentiles as well as Jews – led early Christians to interpret particular prophecies as signs, even when they were from non-Christian sources. Also, events that a non-believer might regard circumstantial were interpreted as part of God’s plan; e.g. Because Roman Emperor Augustus called for a census, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as was prophesied. The Magi (pagan foreigners) brought gifts for the infant Jesus, thus supporting the belief that Christ came for everyone.

Among the sibyls, five of them made prophecies that were interpreted as having a connection to the coming of Christ. Michelangelo included these five among the prophets pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of them, the youthful Delphic Sibyl, is holding the scroll on which her prophecy has been written and she has turned her head in what seems to be anticipation or expectation. Perhaps she is responding to a prophetic voice that will speak through her. Like the other sibyls, the Delphic Sibyl is placed in a painted architectural setting. Behind her on either side are caryatids; figures that serve as columns. A youth is directly behind her reading prophecies.

Sibyls may seem inappropriate among biblical images but their inclusion on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel reflects the teaching that God works through many sources. The five sibyls on the ceiling represent a diverse geographic area. They are from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Pope Gregory the Great and St Matthias | Art for B Easter 7

Acts 1:26
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Pope Gregory the Great and St Matthias
MASOLINO da Panicale
(b. 1383, Panicale, d. 1447, Firenze)
Pope Gregory the Great and St Matthias
1428-29
Tempera and oil on poplar transferred to fibreboard, 126 x 59 cm
National Gallery, London

Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

(Post from May 20,2012)

In the Book of Acts (1:23-26) we have an account of the disciples selecting Mathias by lot to replace Judas but no further information is provided in the New Testament. As often occurs, when facts are not available, the imagination and stories fill the void. Like the popular movie genre of the 1950s in which story lines were built around hypothetical events in the lives of Biblical figures, the accounts of Mathias’ life are not based on direct knowledge. Little is actually known about him.

According to tradition, the Apostle Mathias travelled extensively throughout the Near East, Africa, and Asia Minor. Sometimes he travelled with other apostles. He preached at various times in Judea, Jerusalem, Colchis, Syria, Ethiopia, and Macedonia. He was martyred by several means and buried in several places. He was speared to death in Southern Asia. He was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem – also, in Jerusalem, he died of old age and was buried there; He was crucified and buried in Colchis (modern day Georgia); In Syria he was burned to death. He died in Sebastoplis (modern day Sudan) and was buried there as well. There is yet another burial place. Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, took what she believed were the remains of Mathias to Germany and they are now interred at the abbey of St. Mathias, Trier.

In music, a leitmotif – a recurring theme – is associated with a particular person or idea. Sometimes an instrument is used to identify a character, such as an oboe to represent the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. In similar manner, identifying themes are used in art. A figure of a bearded man in a painting could represent almost any apostle but with an appropriate prop it could be interpreted as a specific person. Just as we associate a man in a white coat and stethoscope as a doctor or a man with a collar worn backwards as a priest, apostles in paintings were identified by objects associated with their lives. Sometimes Mathias is shown with a spear because one tradition has it he was killed with a lance in Asia Minor. He also is represented with a book or scroll to indicate he was an interpreter of judgments and prophecies. The object most often pictured with Mathias, however, is an axe or some version of it such as a battle axe, halberd or hatchet. The axe is associated with the tradition that he was martyred by being beheaded.

In art, a painter is not required to adhere to time. Just as people and events of different places and time periods, even hundreds of years apart, can exist simultaneously in our minds; in a painting they may exist also in a time realm that is separate from reality. Thus you will see a triptych with the donors standing in the wings looking across the ages and observing a scene of the nativity. Or, as we see in Masolino’s painting, a first century man, Mathias, conversing with a sixth century pope (believed to be Gregory the Great). It may be assumed they are meeting in heaven. It is not clear why Masolino brought these two men together. Perhaps it was because Mathias carried the gospel to non-believers, and Pope Gregory re-energized the missionary work of the Church. The pope made it a priority to evangelize the non-Christians among the Anglo-Saxons in England.

In its original form, the painting of Pope Gregory and St. Mathias (now at the National Gallery in London) was part of a polyptych, a multi-paneled painting. The painter, Masaccio, was called to Rome to work on this altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore but completed only one panel before he died. The remaining panels, including The Pope and St. Mathias, were painted by Masolino. This polyptych is no longer in its original form. It has been disassembled and the panels are exhibited separately.
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Commentary © 2012 Hovak Najarian

Ascension | Art for A Easter 7

Acts 1:6-14 When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight

Ascension
MOSAIC ARTIST, Italian
(active 1175-1200 in Venice)
Crossing (Ascension) cupola
1175-1200
Mosaic
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Click image for more information.

B Easter 7, Art for May 20,2012

MASOLINO da Panicale
(b. 1383, Panicale, d. 1447, Firenze)
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography and to explore other works by this artist.

Pope Gregory the Great (?) and St Matthias
1428-29
Tempera and oil on poplar transferred to fibreboard, 126 x 59 cm
National Gallery, London
Click to open Web Gallery of Art commentary page. Click image for large view.

Click to open Wikipedia article of St. Matthias.

Related art commentary by Hovak Najarian.

Pope Gregory the Great (?) and St. Mathias, 1428-29, Tempera and Oil on Wood, Masolino (Masolino da Panicale), A.D. 1383-1447

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Easter 7, Art for May 20,2012

In the Book of Acts (1:23-26) we have an account of the disciples selecting Mathias by lot to replace Judas but no further information is provided in the New Testament. As often occurs, when facts are not available, the imagination and stories fill the void. Like the popular movie genre of the 1950s in which story lines were built around hypothetical events in the lives of Biblical figures, the accounts of Mathias’ life are not based on direct knowledge. Little is actually known about him.

According to tradition, the Apostle Mathias travelled extensively throughout the Near East, Africa, and Asia Minor. Sometimes he travelled with other apostles. He preached at various times in Judea, Jerusalem, Colchis, Syria, Ethiopia, and Macedonia. He was martyred by several means and buried in several places. He was speared to death in Southern Asia. He was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem – also, in Jerusalem, he died of old age and was buried there; He was crucified and buried in Colchis (modern day Georgia); In Syria he was burned to death. He died in Sebastoplis (modern day Sudan) and was buried there as well. There is yet another burial place. Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, took what she believed were the remains of Mathias to Germany and they are now interred at the abbey of St. Mathias, Trier.

In music, a leitmotif – a recurring theme – is associated with a particular person or idea. Sometimes an instrument is used to identify a character, such as an oboe to represent the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. In similar manner, identifying themes are used in art. A figure of a bearded man in a painting could represent almost any apostle but with an appropriate prop it could be interpreted as a specific person. Just as we associate a man in a white coat and stethoscope as a doctor or a man with a collar worn backwards as a priest, apostles in paintings were identified by objects associated with their lives. Sometimes Mathias is shown with a spear because one tradition has it he was killed with a lance in Asia Minor. He also is represented with a book or scroll to indicate he was an interpreter of judgments and prophecies. The object most often pictured with Mathias, however, is an axe or some version of it such as a battle axe, halberd or hatchet. The axe is associated with the tradition that he was martyred by being beheaded.

In art, a painter is not required to adhere to time. Just as people and events of different places and time periods, even hundreds of years apart, can exist simultaneously in our minds; in a painting they may exist also in a time realm that is separate from reality. Thus you will see a triptych with the donors standing in the wings looking across the ages and observing a scene of the nativity. Or, as we see in Masolino’s painting, a first century man, Mathias, conversing with a sixth century pope (believed to be Gregory the Great). It may be assumed they are meeting in heaven. It is not clear why Masolino brought these two men together. Perhaps it was because Mathias carried the gospel to non-believers, and Pope Gregory re-energized the missionary work of the Church. The pope made it a priority to evangelize the non-Christians among the Anglo-Saxons in England.

In its original form, the painting of Pope Gregory and St. Mathias (now at the National Gallery in London) was part of a polyptych, a multi-paneled painting. The painter, Masaccio, was called to Rome to work on this altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore but completed only one panel before he died. The remaining panels, including The Pope and St. Mathias, were painted by Masolino. This polyptych is no longer in its original form. It has been disassembled and the panels are exhibited separately.
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© 2012 Hovak Najarian