|The Libyan Sybil|
The Royal Collection
This work by the Italian Painter Guercino (known as “The Squinter” for the way in which he studied his compositions through clenched eyes) was painted in 1651 for Ippolito Cattani of Bologna from whose estate King George later purchased the piece. It depicts the Libyan Sybil—the woman who prophesied the coming of the Messiah to the Gentiles. Guercino was known for his paintings of the twelve sybils. This Sybil was painted later in his life. By this point in his career, he had cast aside his usual Baroque tendencies of heavy chiaroscuro and instead, shown us a figure painted in half-shadow in regal, rich colors. The artist has also broken tradition by identifying the Sybil by a simple inscription in the book she’s reading as opposed to her usual artistic attribute of a lighted lamp.
For many centuries, the more Pagan symbol of the Sybil was used as a stand-in for Old Testament prophets. This device of communication was often employed in Italian art by Renaissance and Baroque artists. George III was fascinated by this sort of metaphor and eagerly added such paintings to his collection.