Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Libyan Sybil and the Longing for Christ

I was beginning my second year of college in the late 80‘s when the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was coming to a close. It had taken nearly a decade to clean the famous frescoes of Michelangelo (he had painted them in just four years). The restoration brought a brilliance to his work that had not been seen for literally centuries. Roughly half a millennium of accumulated dust, grime, and black smoke from candles had drifted up and smeared nearly three hundred figures in that vaulted firmament. What the restorers found beneath the shadows of all those years was so astounding, so bright and blazing with color, that some actually objected to the project. “You're ruining his masterwork! You're changing Michelangelo’s images! Leave it the way it is! It's a part of history now, why change it?” 

But Pope John Paul II felt otherwise. Wipe away the dirt, remove the loincloths that later, prudish artists had put over the glory of the naked bodies Michelangelo was inspired to paint. The Pope called the ceiling a “shrine to the Theology of the Body.” (Historical Man must recall his Origins, as any TOB student knows!)

The Libyan Sybil, pictured above, is one of my favorite figures on the ceiling. The word Sybil means “prophetess” or “seer” - they were women in the ancient Greek world, dwelling in the temples and holy places, who supposedly read the signs of nature and foresaw the future. In Michelangelo’s work she hovers alongside the Prophets and Patriarchs of the Old Testament, showing us how God speaks to and through all cultures in powerful ways, leading all to the altar, all to Jesus. 
So often in the culture at large, the human body comes to us in distorted images, sound bytes, and scenes from films. The media covers over what God made bright and beautiful, darkening it and distorting it. Deep down, we know it needs a restoration. This beautiful figure of a woman was not painted to stimulate lust, but love and longing. Her exquisite form turns in a graceful glance away from a scroll with its words of pagan wisdom to face the altar far below where Wisdom Itself took flesh. 
As a young student of the arts in the late 80‘s and early 90’s, first seeing this restored beauty, the Sybil, the Woman, I felt drawn into something mysterious. She was inviting me, pointing with the very language of her body to something bigger than herself, stronger than my own desires, to something much deeper than the satisfaction of the sensual appetite. But it was in fact her beauty that led me to quench a spiritual hunger for God, the Source of all Beauty. From the sign to the sacrament to the soul of the reality. Give yourself a gift today; visit the online Vatican collection of these restored images and drink in their grace and beauty. They point to the Love that shaped the world, and they can reshape our own vision too!


Originally written for the TOB Institute newsletter.

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