Sibilla Cumana con putto (1651)

Guercino (1591-1666)

Sibilla Cumana con putto (The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto)
Oil on canvas, 222 x 168.5 cm
National Gallery, London

The Cumaean Sibyl is one of 12 pagan sibyls, or prophetesses, said to have foretold the coming of Christ. In pagan legend they each take their name from their place of origin and have a particular prophecy associated with them. The Cumaean Sibyl, named after Cumae near Naples, predicted that Christ would be born to a virgin mother in a stable at Bethlehem.

This is one of Guercino’s finest late works, imposing in composition, rich in colour and dignified in pose and gesture. The noble figure of the Sibyl, finely dressed and wearing a turban and pearl-drop earring, dominates the composition. She is seated on a stone block and rests a book on a separate stone plinth. Her face turns to meet the gaze of a winged putto who props up a stone slab and gestures towards its inscription: ‘O LIGNVM BEATVM IN QVO DEVS EXTENSVS EST, SYBILLA CVMANA’. This translates as: ‘O blessed wood on which God was stretched out; Cumaean Sibyl’, referring to the wooden cross on which Christ was crucified.

In Italian painting from the fifteenth century onwards, sibyls were commonly shown with books or scrolls (most famously in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling), as an allusion to the Sibylline Books in which their prophecies were recorded. Here, books are included in the foreground, at the putto’s feet, and in the Sibyl’s hands. The Cumaean Sibyl is referred to several times in classical literature, including in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid, and was one of the most commonly featured sibyls in Italian art. 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.

The warm tones in this painting are achieved through Guercino’s use of an orange-brown ground, exposed and visible near the lower right corner of the stone tablet. The range of delicate colours is punctuated by accents of blue in the Sibyl’s cloak and hairband, and in the cloudy sky at upper left. Through his rendering of fabric, the artist has endowed the Sibyl with a great sense of monumentality. Her green stole is tucked into her bodice and winds itself around her shoulders and right arm, to rest on the cloak lying over her lap. Her bright, peach-coloured sleeve, whose folds are wonderfully modelled, draws our attention to the centre of the painting and our eye is led to the fine details of the Sibyl’s dress, such as the embellished velvet band running across her neckline. The putto’s cloak, too, billows out dramatically behind him, further demonstrating Guercino’s skill in articulating drapery.

The painting was commissioned in 1651 by Gioseffo Locatelli of Cesena as a companion to Guercino’s King David, now in a private collection. Before the canvas could be sent to Locatelli, it was seen in Guercino’s studio by Prince Mattias de’ Medici, who convinced the artist to sell it to him instead. Guercino painted The Samian Sibyl with a Putto for the original patron as a replacement. That Guercino chose to produce a new composition rather than an identical copy is a testament to his originality as a painter. (NG)


Guercino (1591-1666)
La Sibilla Samia
National GalleryLondon