The Basilica of Santa Maria della Pace, beside the entrance to the Chiostro del Bramante galleries, contains a celebrated work of art created by Raphael around 1515, a painting almost six metres wide known as the Sibyls fresco. The fresco is visible from a specially adapted window in the Sibyls room, which is accessible from the open porch of the mezzanine of the Chiostro del Bramante (opening hours: 10 am – 07 pm). An audio-visual guide explaining the fresco has been installed beside the window.
The painting was commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, whose highly influential position allowed him to obtain permission from the Pope to build two private chapels in the basilica. The fresco is considered a work of notable formal beauty and erudition. The figures are arranged symmetrically around a central point occupied by a cherubim in a composition typical of Raphael’s style, as is the richness of symbolic and literary allusions. Raphael draws a direct connection between the angels, Christian messengers bearing the word of God, and the Sibyls as their ancient equivalents, through whom the ancient pagan gods communicated their will.
The importance of the Sibyls in Renaissance iconography is reinforced by their prominent appearance in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. A comparison between Michelangelo’s Sibyls and those of Raphael brings to light the differences in style between these two great artists of the 16th century. The sibyls painted by Michelangelo are towering figures whose monumental physical presence conveys their inner strength. Raphael’s, by contrast, are elegant, lyrical and light. Despite their ability to foresee the future, the four oracles nonetheless appear variously captivated by the appearance of God’s angelic messengers. The four figures thus come to embody the new Christian interpretation of Antiquity.
The four Sibyls – the Cumaean, the Persian, the Phrygian, and the Tiburtine – are depicted in a perfectly symmetrical fashion around the arch at the entrance to the second Chigi chapel. Three of them are portrayed as young maidens, whereas the Cumaean Sibyl is depicted as an old woman. Next to her Raphael has transcribed Virgil’s verses about the new generation that “descends from heaven on high”, emphasizing a widely held belief that this was a prophecy regarding the eventual victory of Christianity.