Rome, Imperial, ca. 1st to 4th century. A stunning hand-carved marble relief panel depicting the birth of the Roman god Mithras. Shown from the torso up and wearing a Phrygian cap, the cult deity emerges from the "generative rock" from which he was born as a fully formed young man. His extended right arm holds up a torch, symbolic of the fire or light hidden deep in the rock that birthed him, and a knife in his left, an allusion to his future slaying of a sacred bull. To the left, a recumbent god lays on a bed with his upper body propped up by his left arm, which holds a patera (libation bowl), while his right arm stretches outward to rest on his bent knee. The similarity of this pose to that of a Roman river god suggests that this character is Oceanus, the Titan water god and father of the river gods, who is a frequent attendee in depictions of Mithras' birth. Between them lays an ibex, one of many animals often shown at Mithras' nativity and an allusion to the shepherds who are also occasionally present. A simple yet elegant border frames the scene on 3 sides with a small head featured below the bottom border, reminiscent of a caryatid. A remarkable relief from the Roman mystery cult of Mithraism. Size: 8.5" L x 1.5" W x 5" H (21.6 cm x 3.8 cm x 12.7 cm)
Mithraism (also known as the Mithraic mysteries) was a Roman cult religion that focused on the god Mithras. Members of Mithraism would meet underground in temples called mithraea (singular mithraeum); many of which survive today and contain impressive reliefs, sculptures, and frescoes that act as our only source of information about the curious cult. Popular among the Roman army from the 1st to 4th centuries, Mithraic symbolism, like this example, can be found throughout the most expansive periods of the Empire from Roman Britain (a temple to Mithras can still be seen in the modern City of London) to its eastern coasts in the ancient-places-turned-colonies of Thracia and Dacia to Roman Syria, and even Roman Africa and Numidia. These mythraea often include four main illustrations: Mithras' birth from a rock, his slaying of a sacred bull, the celebratory banquet of the bull's slaying, and a lion-headed figure. As Christianity began to gain popularity and influence, Mithraism became a competing religion and more importance was placed on Mithras' miraculous birth. The iconography around the birth changed to include shepherds and farm animals, like the ram seen here, making it seem as though Mithras was born in a barn and thus likening him to Christ.
Provenance: ex Estate of Eldert Bontekoe, Pegasi Numismatics, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA acquired before 2000
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Fragment of a larger piece. Missing part of upper right corner with some minute nicks/chips and abrasions on periphery. Light softening of details with some scratches to relief. Otherwise, excellent.