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Paper #3: Where Art Meets Text: Potent Words and Vivid Images in the Isiac Cults

Molly Swetnam-Burland

College of William & Mary

We begin this paper by surveying new work on Isiac material culture, including studies of gems (Veymiers 2009), lamps (Podvin 2011), landscapes (Barrett 2017), and Egyptian imports (Swetnam-Burland 2015). We then explore new directions by considering the application of the ‘art and text’ methodology pioneered by J. Elsner, M. Squire and V. Platt to Isiac material (Elsner 2007; Squire 2009; Platt 2011). Proposing a dynamic relationship between reading and looking, these scholars integrate textual and material evidence to reveal how objects and their display informed viewers’ lived experiences. We present two case studies that demonstrate the potential of these approaches to vivify our understanding of the Isiac cults’ beliefs and practices.

First, we examine shrines, whose iconography provides evidence for Isis in the private sphere. The shrine at the Casa degli Amorini Dorati in Pompeii, for example, included depictions of Egyptian deities and cultic paraphernalia (Petersen 2012). Other shrines, too, stand as witness to the many incarnations of Isis and other Egyptian deities venerated in private spaces. Yet shrines were also places of ritual action. In the case of the shrine in the Casa degli Amorini Dorati, a hole bored into the wall allowed participants to place offerings on the painted altar, breaching real and fictive space. When we examine graffiti associated with other Isiac shrines in Italy, we can better understand how such paintings invited interaction. Graffiti document gifts and prayers, provide evidence of cultic roles, but also express jokes and greetings – a reminder of the diversity of religious experience and its integration into daily life. Next, we consider the corpus of funerary monuments from Roman Athens that depict devotees dressed as Isis (Walters 1988; Martzavou 2011). Previous studies have focused on typological and social questions and have not considered these reliefs’ implications for the cult’s theology. Reading these images with descriptions of Lucius’ initiation from Book XI of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, these cultic costumes take on a new dimension. Alongside their roles as cultic identifiers in the civic and funerary landscape, these images also suggest that devotees saw transcendence as a key feature of cultic sculpture: just as Lucius could take on the role of the cult image in his initiation, these portraits assimilated the deceased devotee to the goddess for eternity.

Our case studies demonstrate the utility of looking beyond the image, turning to formal, literary texts (Apuleius) and informal, hand-written ones (graffiti). In both instances, texts provide vital context for iconography. Taken together, however, text and image underscore the penetration of devotion in the lives of those who commissioned monuments intended to express their beliefs and deepen personal ritual experience.

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New Directions in Isiac Studies

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