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Offerings and Artists: Mithras in Art


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The great diversity of the followers of the Mithras cult is clearly revealed in the variation in the temples themselves and in the numerous gifts which were offered to the tutelary deity. Hidden in the mountains of the Italian Alps, Southern France and Yugoslavia are a few simple sanctuaries where the standard cult scenes were carved in the living rock. High up in the mountains twenty-five miles north-west of the Rumanian Black Sea town of Constanza, a natural grotto was fitted out as a Mithraeum with, next to primitive altars, a magnificent relief executed by the artist Nicomedeus, and presented by a senior tax official. At Ostia the Athenian sculptor Kriton created a wonderful group with Mithras as bull-slayer, portrayed in the full grandeur of the Greek style. At Leptis Magna in Tripolitania the torch-bearers were executed in marble by one Aristius Antiochus, while at Merida in Spain a certain Demetrius created a most original sculptor of Mithras standing with a dolphin at his feet. In the second century B.C. a whole group of artists established a workshop in Koenigshoffen near Stasbourg, lured there by the hope of benefiting from the presence of the legions and the cult of their patron Mithras. This scholl did not confine its products to the mithraea of Koenigshoffen and Mackwiller, for its distinctive statuary is encountered throughout the surrounding districts.

The painted Mithraea in Rome and Ostia are the most renowned, but temple paintings have been found in Capua and even at Dura on the Euphrates. The Ostia Mithraea are even better known for their mosaics in black and white marble, set in the floor and on the reclining benches, which illustrate symbolically the teachings of Mithras. At Poetovio and Stockstadt silversmiths were employed to depict the motif of the bull-slaying on small silver plates, and gems engraved with representations of Mithras (Fig. 35) are also known. Santa Prisca had a head of the Sun-god in lead with a cut-out halo, and in this same Mithraeum various artists were employed at different times to adorn the cult niche with stucco work. Germany and Austria are particularly well known for their large snake-vases and only recently a pot from the Central Gaulish terra sigillata factories at Lezoux came to light, bearing a representation of the bull-slaying (Fig. 36). Finally, a small terra sigillata vessel was found at Trier decorated with a portrayal of the sacred meal.


Fig.35. Gem showing a Mithraic scene

Fig.36. Terra sigillata pot with a representation of Mithras


A closer examination of these objects shows that the artist did not always grasp the spirit of the commission, and indeed-as is the case of Kriton at Ostia-he sometimes allowed his own personal whim to take complete control. Whether a monument was infused with a deep symbolism or not depended on the degree of education of the members of the community or of the artist employed. In most cases the Father of the Community seems to have exercised a decisive influence on the general furnishing of the sanctuary, but the actual execution of the plans was in some regions governed by very unfavourably conditions, and limited finances often had the last word. But if circumstances permitted the temple would be ornamented in certain ways. Sometimes the dominant motif was surrounded by dozens of votive images of the bull-slaying, as at Sarmizegetusa, or by lamps and candelabra, or alternatively a painted or embroidered veil might be hung in front of the cult niche, deum in velo formatum, as we learn from an inscription at Ostia. But the Mithraeum was never luxurious; even in Rome, where some statues were decorated with gold leaf, the temple of Mithras preserved its austere and simple character, as befitted the god who was worshipped there.

In comparing the hundreds of Mithraic representations spread over the empire, we can distinguish certain underlying traditions. As we have seen, the commonest type of representation, the bull-slaying in a vaulted cave, occurs on a relief from Yugoslavia, (Fig. 37.) as well as in Rome and other parts of the Empire. This type, which was sometimes highly stylised, originated with an artist who may have lived under the Empire and was certainly influenced by a Hellenistic school. There is an exceptionally interesting relief showing the victorious Mithras with Phrygian cap and crown standing on the bull, his right foot triumphantly planted on the animal's head while in his left hand he holds a globe or pine-cone and in his right hand a dagger pointing upwards. At his side are a scorpion, the raven, a lion, a crowing cock, an ant and an eagle on a thunderbolt. This image of the god trampling an animal underfoot was so widespread in Asia Minor that it also came to be associated with Mithras. It did not, however, become generally popular since normally the bull-slayer, symbolic of the moment of the rebirth of nature, remained the focal point.

Rome was by no means the sole source of artistic inspiration, though certain representations were found there which are not encountered elsewhere. The procession of Lions on the side walls of Santa Prisca is a singular phenomenon and adds a touch of local colour to the normal iconography. A relief from Konjic, (Fig. 5) which gives a vivid portrayal of the most sacred moments in the ritual, is again quite unique in its conception. Representations of hunting scenes are mainly confined to the Rhineland, although they appear at Dura on Euphrates, but there are none in Rome. This type probably spread directly from Asia Minor to the Rhineland, which also produced various regional schools of art of its own. The larger reliefs enriched with various additional scenes came from these regions and are shaped like triumphal arches. They are not found in the Danube countries and only one instance occurs in Rome, on a painting in the Barberini Mithraeum, which was probably therefore executed under the influence of Rhenish art.

Other types again are encountered in Rumania and Bulgaria and are confined to these countries. If an example of this type turns up elsewhere one many reasonably assume that it originated in Dacia, particularly if it is a small arched relief depicting a number of scenes from the Mithras legend on its upper and lower borders. The scenes on the lower edge are usually divided from each other by arches. The Danube region is characterised by trapeziform reliefs with miscellaneous scenes grouped around the bull-slayer and on the narrow bands above and below. No examples of circular reliefs have been found in Rome, but they are known in Tugoslavia (at Salona) and in Hungary (Brigetio), and in one isolated case in Bulgaria.

There was therefore considerable diversity in the type and style of the monument. The artist was given full liberty to work as he wished, on occasion following a completely local tradition, and it is often possible to see that he did not attend too closely to the instructions of his commission and consequently understood little of the symbolism which his products were intended to portray.




Continue: The Fall of Mithras






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