Sunday, January 29, 2012

Augustus consulting the Tiburtine Sibyl

The French artist Antoine Caron's  Augustus consulting the Tiburtine Sibyl (c.1578) exhibits notable characteristics associated with Northern Mannerist art including- a frequent recourse in subject-matter to allegory and mythology and depiction of animated figures, utilizing theatrical staging which is often heightened by an unusual perspective. Today the Sibylline oracle  most likely to be consulted would be Wikipedia which informs us that -

To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur (modern-day Tivoli). At the mythic meeting of Augustus with the Sibyl, Augustus inquired whether he should be worshipped as a god.

Whether the Roman Emperor Augustus ( 63 BCE - 14 CE) was ever guided to Christ as a spiritual teacher by an ancient Roman oracle pointing heavenwards towards Mother and Child is, of course, highly improbable. Such recasting of mythology in religion was, however, a prime concern of early Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine (354 CE - 430 CE) and Eusebius of Caesarea (263 CE - 339 CE) both of whom wrote of sibyls who 'prophesied' the coming of Christ.

During the Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1493) as well as late Northern Mannerist artists such as Caron, sought to re-integrate pagan antiquity by suggesting it pre-figured and 'anticipated'  Christianity. Most striking in Antoine Caron's painting is the depth of field conveyed by its perspective, drawing the eye deeper and further into a far distant infinity; an effect which is heightened by placing architecture at varied intervals to enhance its depth of space.  It's an effect similar to the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) which often feature desolate streets in shadowy cityscapes to create an unsettling effect.

As ever there's a Sir T. Browne connection to this post for he wrote a chapter entitled On the picture of the Sibyls in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  in which he ponders why various ancient sources number and name different sibyls. With characteristic humour Browne discusses artistic licence along with revealing  his access to reproductions of major western art-works stating -

Which duly perpended, the licentia pictoria is very large; with the same reason they may delineate old  Nestor  like Adonis, Hecuba with Helen's face, and time with Absolom's head. But this absurdity that eminent artist, Michael Angelo, hath avoided, in the pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus.[1]

Michaelangelo's Cumean Sibyl
The veracity of pagan oracles must have been of particular interest to Browne for he's also the author of a miscellaneous writing entitled  - Of the answers of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphos to Croesus, King of Lydia. (Tract XI.) .

[1]   P.E. Bk 5 chapter 11
Wikilink -   Sibyl  -   De Chirico

1 comment:

teegee said...

Surely Caron's paintings go with or elaborate on masques presented at courts. I wish I could say as much for di Chirico, though I admit that in my youth I was impressed by his austere vistas, which he himself associated with dreams he'd had.