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Work Double-sided Mithraic Relief

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Double-sided Mithraic Relief

© 2007 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This double-sided relief is one of the most complete works of the traditional iconography of Mithra. Beneath the gaze of the heavens, the Iranian deity sacrifices a bull to make the universe fruitful. The other side depicts Mithra at a banquet with the sun, with whom he is associated as a sign of the triumph of light over evil forces. The Mithraic religion, very popular in Rome in the second and third centuries, was a religion of salvation that was sometimes confused with Christianity.

Cultural context

This monument sculpted on both sides (called an "amphiglyph") was mounted on a swivel, allowing worshipers of Mithra to view both sides. Originally, Mithra was a secondary figure in the ancient Iranian religion of Mazdeism, which was temporarily reformed by the famous Zarathustra, or Zoroastra. Mithra worship became very widespread among Roman legions in the Eastern Empire. Starting in the first century, the cult of Mithra expanded, and by the third century had become very much in vogue. A religion of salvation, it was sometimes confused by the Romans with Christianity.

Reference to an initiation ritual

The organization of the cult was based on levels of initiation - the details of which are unknown - connected to animals. This relief shows the rituals being performed by the god himself. On one side, between the moon and the sun, Mithra sacrifices a bull to make the universe fruitful, while a dog and serpent quench their thirst with the creature's blood. A scorpion pinches the bull's testicles to fertilize the earth with its semen. On the other side, the god is depicted banqueting with the sun, a symbol of the triumph of light over evil forces. These two images may correspond to two levels of initiation: a first level in which the candidate receives the blood of a sacrificed bull, and a second in which he or she is seated at the table of the gods.

The use of existing schemas

The iconography is directly inspired by Classical Greek art of the fifth century BC: the scene is that of the Victories sacrificing a bull, on the temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis in Athens.

Bibliography

Fr. Cumont, Revue Archéologique no 25, 1946, pp. 183-195, fig. 1-2
Catalogue d'exposition : L'Art de Rome et des provinces, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1970, pp. 143-144, n 172
B. Brenk, Spätantike und frühes christentum, Berlin, Propylän Verlag, 1983-1984, p. 536, n 142

Technical description

  • Double-sided Mithraic Relief

    Second or third century AD

    Discovered at Fiano Romano in 1926

    Rome

  • Marble, sculpted in low relief

    H. 58 cm; W. 67 cm

  • Gift of Cumont-Offenbach, 1939

    N° d'entrée MND 1911 (n° usuel Ma 3441)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art
    Room 25

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