Augustus, Jesus and the Sibyl: the story so far
Sometimes Twitter is wonderful. I was just writing a couple of sentences of my book a few days ago about what was once a well known story of the emperor Augustus, the image of the Virgin and Child, and the Tiburtine Sibyl (or ‘prophetess’). I had tapped down some confident words more or less to this effect: “this scene was one of the commonest in the early modern period, but is now one of the least recognised”. . .
But then I had a crisis of confidence. Maybe everyone really knew this story, and I was being a complete twat, as well as dangerously patronising to suggest in print that it was largely unknown. (Imagine the ignominy… nothing annoys a reader more than the author telling them they wont know something they learned on their mother’s knee). So I tweeted… can the Twittersphere help? Is the story of Augustus, Jesus and the Sibyl now well known?
Sorry if this is going back to emperors, which I promised I wasn’t. But it is with a different twist.
One of the first reactions was from those who kindly pointed out to me that there was actually a system on Twitter for having a quick opinion poll (I had seen this in other people’s tweets, but never known how to do it, now I do.. thanks all). But even my rudimentary attempt at a Twitter poll produced the overwhelming result: NO, this is not a well-known story. And I promised to explain what exactly the story was.
The question underlying my own interest was this: how did people in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period reconcile the story of Jesus with the story of the Roman emperors (Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus after all, and crucified in the reign of Tiberius). What follows is a simplified version of just one version of that out of many. I haven’t yet got back to the, medieval, original sources (I will when I return to a fuller discussion, more than the couple of sentences I have penned for Chap 1, later in the book; the Golden Legend is one, but there are others). Certainly a long history lies behind the images.
To cut a very complicated story short: it was the day of Jesus’s birth and the emperor Augustus serendipitously asked the pagan prophetess, the Sibyl, if there would ever be someone born more powerful than himself; the Sibyl showed him the answer in the sky, where a vision the Virgin and child appeared.
But in more detailed versions of the story there are links to buildings and dedications in Rome: in particular to the church of the Ara Coeli on the Capitol in Rome. One story was that Augustus set up, in response to the vision, an Ara Primogeniti Dei, meaning “Altar of the Firstborn of God.”. Later this became the nucleus church of the Ara Coeli (the church we still walk past, on the left, on the way up to the Capitol)..
Whatever the precise details, for me what is interesting is the engagement of early modern writers, painters and thinkers, in linking the Christian and the imperial story. And this story, with all the many paintings that engage with and illustrate it, is one of the places where we see this most clearly. And I am hoping that my book will open some of these connections up.
(You have Caron, Ghirlandaio, unknown Venetian and `Veronese above... and here is the new version: