The twelve Sibyls were supposed to have foretold the coming of Christ and were adopted by the Church as pagan equivalents to Old Testament prophets. Gentileschi's Sibyl wears a turban, holds a tablet inscribed with indecipherable hieroglyphs and looks upwards as if seeking divine inspiration. Gentileschi was in effect painter to Charles I's Queen, Henrietta Maria.
This painting depicts one of the twelve Sibyls, who were the seers of classical antiquity alleged to have foretold the coming of Christ, and were thus adopted by the Church as pagan equivalents of the Old Testament prophets. Michelangelo alternated prophets and Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a prototype which may explain the great popularity of the subject over the next two hundred years. Gentileschi's recalls well-known earlier examples by Guido Reni and Domenichino. His Sibyl wears a turban, holds a tablet inscribed with indecipherable hieroglyphs and looks upwards with a dreamy, thoughtful gaze, as if seeking divine inspiration. The painting does not seem to have been part of a set, and although the subject has been thought to be the Persian Sibyl, there is no specific attribute by which to recognise her.
Sterling dated the painting to the beginning of Gentileschi's time in England by comparison with his Public Felicity (Louvre) of c.1624-6. Although Gentileschi's refined style did not alter very much at this date, the Sibyl's features are also close to those of Victory in central roundel of Orazio's ceiling for the Queen's House, Greenwich, of c.1636-8 (now Marlborough House, London). The Sibyl's pensive mood and the rich and soft modulation of light from deep shadow to bright highlights on eyes, nose and lips can be related to many of the figures on the Greenwich ceiling. The more private small-scale painting might have been developed at the same time as the Greenwich ceiling figures, and with an awareness of the popularity in the 1630s of half-length female figures painted by other Italians, particularly Guido Reni.
This picture is probably 'A Womans. head: by gentelisco', valued at £6 at Hampton Court in 1649 and sold to Robert Houghton, the King's Brewer; it subsequently passed into the hands of the Parliamentarian Viscount Lisle, later 3rd Earl of Leicester.35 Lord Lisle had been one of the most prolific buyers at the Commonwealth Sales, purchasing 120 works of art, including 61 paintings. When pressed for the provenance of his paintings by the House of Lords committee in May 1660, he stated that his pictures 'had been bought in many severall places and in severall yeares whereby the matter is in the nature of it incapable of certainty wch were the King's', but that he would hold those he believed to have been the king's in readiness for him. A Sibyl was one of those that he duly returned to the Crown four months later, in September 1660.