In one section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo painted the figures of the Hebrew prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. Among them, he included a pagan Roman “witch”, the Cumaean Sibyl. The reason for her inclusion is told in this ancient legend.
One winter evening about 15 years after he had wrested control of the Roman Empire from the hands of his squabbling partners, the emperor Augustus ascended the Capitoline Hill in the hart of Rome to have an augury cast. The priests of ancient Rome believed the future could be told by various omens, such as the formation of a flight of birds or the shape of the entrails of slaughtered animals. Something had been worrying the emperor and he decided to settle the problem by referring to the priests of the Capitoline.
But it was no ordinary priest that he had settled upon for the taking of the omen. It was the Cumaean Sibyl, a mysterious prophetess who guarded the Sibylline Books, a collection of prophecies stored in the basement of the Temple of Jupiter. The priestess made quick work of the killing of the animal the emperor had brought and examined its innards.
Suddenly, she stepped back in horror from the altar, bumping into the emperor and communicating her fear to him. Slowly, she raised her arm above the altar stone and the dead animal and pointed out beyond the balcony that overlooked the imperial capital. Augustus followed her gaze toward the east whose clouds were catching the light of the setting sun in the west.
The emperor grabbed the scared woman and shook her, asking what she had seen. In whispered tones, the prophetess hissed, “At this very moment in the east, there is being born a child who will rule in your place over the whole world from their very spot!”
The ruler of the Roman Empire turned from her in anger and clattered down the steps to the Forum below followed by the guards. The Cumaean Sibyl stood alone on the hill, still gazing fixedly toward the east.