The Double-Sided Mithraic Relief is an example of a "bas-relief", which means that rather than creating a three-dimensional sculpture, the artist choose to carve into the marble. In order to do so, the artist would need to have access to an incredibly sharp tool, such as a chisel to cut into the marble, as well as knowledge and training in order to create clearly defined shapes in the marble. Relief sculptures could be found throughout the Ancient World, especially in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and were often constructed out of bronze, limestone, and marble. Marble came to be used more frequently in the 3rd century CE due to the discovery of marble quarries near Tuscany, in the province of Carrara [see Franchi Dell'Orto 1982, 58-59]. Due to the double sided nature of the relief, it is more specifically referred to as an "amphiglyph". This relief was discovered in Fiano Romano in 1926 and now resides in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Local Historical ContextEdit
At the time in which this relief was created, the Roman Empire was undergoing a period of crises that would eventually lead to its collaps. This relief was most likely created during the age of the Severans and the Soldier-Emperors. This period of time lasting from roughly 193-284 AD was marked by the rise of Septimius Severus who established a dynasty heavily based upon the military and implemented a strong imperial administration. Following the assassination of his son, Caracalla, the era of Soldier-Emperors came about in which the Roman Empire would have sixteen emperors over the next forty-nine years. Many of these men relied upon brute military force to attain power and could not rule without the support of the military [see Dunstan 2011, 386-387].
This era of power struggles and crises had profound impacts on the culture of the Roman Empire at this time. The Empire succumbed to vast amounts of inflation and many people chose to flee the cities in favor of the countryside where they established latifundia, or large estates farmed by peasant labor and owned by the elites.
This period of uncertainty and trouble within the Roman government was also reflected in the religions and artwork produced at this time. One of the religions that managed to gain a foothold within Roman society was Mithraism, which was centered on the Iranian God of Son, Mithra. After his miraculous birth from a rock, Mithra was credited with having endured two arduous tasks. The first was a wrestling match with the Sun in which Mithra and the Sun end up becoming friends. The second was the capture and sacrifice of the sacred bull of creation which resulted in the blossoming and emergence of plants, flowers, and crops. These two scenes are the ones depicted upon this double-sided mithraic relief and were fundamental parts of the Mithraic faith [see Boustan, 291]. As Mithraism spread into the Greek and Roman Empires from its native lands in the East, Mithra would grow to become more closely associated with the Sun. Mithraism was quickly adopted among the soldiers in the Roman Empire who were drawn to the elitism of such an exclusive religion, provided that they enter into a brotherhood upon lengthy study and occult initiation rituals [see Bunson 2012, 442-443]. Mithraism was adopted by Roman Emperors such as, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, which helped to further increase the number of Mithraic practitioners.
This Double-Sided Mithraic relief was most likely placed within a Mithraeum, or an area in which Mithraism would be practiced. Mithraeum's were small, underground places of worship that would be used for ceremonies, such as the initiation ceremony. The Mithrain initiation ceremony involved a simulation of death followed by resurrection, which was a main theme that helped to attract soldiers to this religion. By placing this artwork in this space, converts would be reminded of the faith that they were becoming a part of and the adversities overcome by Mithra. The two-sided nature of this piece is interesting because it most likely rested upon a swivel which allowed for viewers to see both sides of the relief.
This relief's importance lies within the many cultural implications it had at the time of its creation as well as now. The portrayal of a originally Zoroastrian god that had been adopted by Roman culture shows the cultural effects that the East had on the West beginning in the early first centuries. Along with Mithra, other Eastern gods such as, Cybele and Isis, managed to garner popularity among the Romans. The intricate ceremonies and exclusivity of these cults greatly intrigued the Romans and helped to integrate these religions into Roman Society. However, the success of these Pagan cults would soon be challenged by the increasingly popular religion of Christianity. Although the mystery of Mithraism greatly attracted soldiers, the general population failed to see the appeal behind the religion. Thus, by the fourth century AD, Mithraism, along with many other pagan religions, succumbed to the power and influence of Christianity and were no longer widely practiced in the Roman World [see Grant, 131]. The inability of these pagan religions to coexist with the major religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam show the remarkable impact that these major religions have had on world history. After thousands of years of competition from other religions, such as Mithraism which had a decent following, these religions have managed sustain their influence over politics and culture.
Boustan, Ra'anan S and Reed, Annette Yoshiko. Heavenly Realms and earthly realities in late antique religions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome. New York: Facts on File, 2012.
Dunstan, William E. Ancient Rome. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
Franchi Dell’Orto, Luisa. Ancient Rome: Life and Art. New York: Scala Books, 1982.
Grant, Frederick C. Hellenistic Religions: the age of syncretism. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.
Louvre, "Double-Sided Mithraic Relief" http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/double-sided-mithraic-relief
Britannica Online, "Latifundium" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/331650/latifundium
Britannica Online, "Mithraism" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/386080/Mithraism
Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Roman Empire (27 B.C. - 393 A.D.)" http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roem/hd_roem.htm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Plaque of Mithra slaying the bull"[http:// http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1997.145.3 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1997.145.3] Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Severan Dynasty" http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/seve/hd_seve.htm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Eastern Religions in the Roman World" http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/errw/hd_errw.htm