La Sibilla Samia (1651)

Guercino (1591-1666)

La Sibilla Samia (The Samian Sibyl with a Putto)
Oil on canvas, 218.5 × 180 cm
National Gallery, London

The Samian Sibyl was one of 12 pagan sibyls (or priestesses) who, like the Old Testament prophets, were said to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Samian Sibyl, named after the Greek island of Samos, was an oracle of Apollo and prophesied that Christ would be born to a virgin mother. A putto unfurls a scroll with the text ‘SALVE CASTA SYON PER MVLTAQVE PASSA PVELLA’ and ‘SYBILLA SAMIA’, which translates as: ‘Hail, chaste Sion who has undergone much suffering; Samian Sibyl’. This inscription refers to the suffering of the Virgin Mary.

Sibyls were popular in Italian art and, from the fifteenth century onwards were commonly shown with books or scrolls, alluding to the Sybilline Books in which their prophecies were recorded. With her elbow propped on a book, the Samian Sibyl here rests her head in her left hand as she concentrates on the volume she holds open with the other. A large book sits on the table in front of her, open to reveal an elegant script that demonstrates Guercino’s attention to detail in the still-life elements of this picture. The sibyls became particularly popular subjects in the seventeenth century and Guercino, like Domenichino, painted numerous pictures of them throughout his career, especially in the late 1640s and early 1650s.

By this stage of his career, Guercino’s work was greatly influenced by Guido Reni who, like Guercino, was active in Bologna. Reni’s austere classicism, evident in The Rape of Europa, is echoed in both The Samian Sibyl with a Putto and The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto. The billowing effect of the putto’s drapery is also reminiscent of Reni’s style. In this painting, Guercino has carefully constructed the form of the Samian Sibyl beneath the layers of fabric: her left leg is crossed over her right and the texture, folds and fall of her garment are expertly modelled.

Guercino produced this painting in 1651 for Gioseffo Locatelli of Cesena, as a companion to King David (now in a private collection). He had first painted The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto for Locatelli but, before it could be sent to him, it was seen in Guercino’s studio by Prince Mattias de‘ Medici, who convinced the artist to sell it to him instead. Guercino produced this painting for Locatelli as a replacement and his decision to create a new composition rather than an identical copy of The Cumaean Sibyl, is a testament to his originality as a painter.

The frame on The Samian Sibyl with a Putto is exceptionally fine. It was designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in the mid-eighteenth century and matches that of its former pendant King David, with which it was displayed at Spencer House in London. (NG)


Guercino (1591-1666)
Sibilla Cumana con putto
National GalleryLondon