Head of a Sibyl “Bärbel von Ottenheim”
Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden


Reddish veined sandstone, original polychromy lost
Height 23.2 cm



One of the most popular works in the Liebieghaus is a woman’s head in sandstone from the Late Gothic period. The head is inclined slightly to the right. The narrow face smiles smugly beneath the veil that reveals a fashionably pinned-up plait beside her right cheek.

The many broken edges indicate that the piece is a fragment. Originally it was a bust of a sibyl: in Greek mythology a prophetess whose predictions were given Christian interpretations during the Middle Ages. She formed part of the portal decoration of a chancellery in Strasbourg that has since been destroyed. She once leaned out of a false window over the gate, above the coat of arms of the city and beneath the figure of the Virgin enthroned.

With her left hand she held onto the window frame on the right. From a second window opposite, a prophet peered out to the left with a similar movement; all that survives of him is likewise his head, now in the Musée de l’OEuvre Notre- Dame in Strasbourg. Fortunately, however, plaster casts of both busts hav come down to us. The artist responsible for these sculptures was Niclaus Gerhaert van Leyden, the most important Central European sculptor in his day. His handicraft skills were outstanding, and few of his contemporaries could create figures that move as animatedly and seem as lifelike as his. The lost polychromy on the busts would have Heightened that effect considerably.

This aspect probably explains why, despite their actual meaning, the works soon acquired the names of real people. Even today, these busts are sometimes called by names documented as having been used for them since the sixteenth century: Count Jakob von Lichtenberg, who was Governor of Strasbourg at the time the portal was executed (1463–64), and his mistress, Bärbel von Ottenheim.