In the painting above, the French artist François Perrier (c. 1594–1649) re-created a scene from book 6 of The Aeneid, an epic poem written by the Roman poet, Virgil. Center stage in the painting, dressed in the golden-yellow armor, is a depiction of the Trojan refugee, Aeneas, who was said to have fled to Italy after the Trojan War, where he began a lineage that would eventually produce Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. During his adventures, Aeneas met with the Cumaean Sibyl—shown on the right side of the painting, dressed in white. Sibyls and other prophetess types, such as the mystic women who plied their trade at Delphi, were often a particularly erratic and flamboyant cast of characters, sure to shock their visitors with exaggerated body gestures and barrages of cryptic messages from the beyond. The Cumaean Sibyl was no different, and the poet Virgil masterfully captured her strangeness in the following passage from The Aeneid, which colorfully describes the sibyl’s transformation as she began her ceremony for Aeneas and his followers:
“Now carved out of the rocky flanks of Cumae
lies an enormous cavern pierced by a hundred tunnels,
a hundred mouths with as many voices rushing out,
the Sibyl’s rapt replies. They had just gained
the sacred sill when the virgin cries aloud:
‘Now is the time to ask your fate to speak!
The god, look, the god!’
So she cries before
the entrance—suddenly all her features, all
her color changes, her braided hair flies loose
and her breast heaves, her heart bursts with frenzy,
she seems to rise in height, the ring of her voice no longer
human—the breath, the power of god comes closer, closer.”
(Virgil, The Aeneid, book 6, approx. lines 50-70)
Such is the scene that François Perrier captured on canvas. Aeneas’ experience alongside the Cumaean Sibyl would only become stranger after this opening transformation at the entrance of the cavern. She would soon lead Aeneas on a tour through the underworld.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.