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Isiac Cult Scene

Roman Egyptian
second half of 2nd century
20.3 cm x 11.5 cm x 1.1 cm (8 in. x 4 1/2 in. x 7/16 in.)

On view


Additional Images
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Additional Image Detail of seated figure
Detail of seated figure
Additional Image Detail of standing figure
Detail of standing figure
Additional Image Detail, inscription
Detail, inscription
Additional Image Reverse

Scholars once identified the seated figure as a poet, on account of the wreath around his head, and his seated, reading pose, although this did not help to explain either the altar on the right or the other figure. A more plausible scenario emerged by comparison with a Roman wall painting from Herculaneum, now in the National Museum in Naples, populated by similar figures with shorn heads and long robes cinched up under their arms. They are priests sacrificing in front of a temple at an altar that resembles the one in the ivory. The presence at the foot of the altar of ibises, native to Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, suggest that the temple is dedicated to an Egyptian deity. The veneration of Egyptian and other oriental deities spread throughout the Roman Empire, to the point that there was a professional college of priests of Isis residing in Rome. The painting probably depicts the Iseum (temple of Isis) at Pompeii. The ivory, then, may likewise depict the veneration of Isis. The seated figure is reading a sacred, rather than a literary text. The raised inscription reads, ANDROPOLEITES, referring to the imperial administrative district of Andropolis in Egypt, suggesting that this ivory was carved in Roman Egypt. The same place name appears on Roman coins minted in Egypt during the first and second centuries, so this is probably when the ivory was carved.

The plaque appears to have suffered losses from its top and right sides. Even so, it is relatively large for ivory reliefs and suggests, as do contemporary texts, that Egypt’s ability to supply ivory to the Mediterranean continued into the Late Antique period.

- J. Hanson

É. Bablon, "Séance du 12 décembre, plaque en ivoire de la collection de M. Guilhou," Bulletin de la Société nationale des antiquaires de France (1900): 303-05.

H. Graeven, Antike Schnitzereien aus Elfenbein und Knochen in photographischer Nachbildung: Serie 1, 1903, Nr. 1-80 (Hannover, 1903), 128ff., no. 79.

J. Strzygowski, Koptische Kunst, Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire. nos. 7001-7394 et 8742-9200, 13 (Vienne, 1904, 1974), 171.

Hôtel Drouot, Objets antiques et du Moyen Age; marbres, orfèvrerie, verrerie, céramique, bronzes, ivoires...provenant des Collections de Dr. B(ignault) et de M. C(anessa), 19-21 Mai, 1910 (Paris, 1910), 34, no. 347, pl. 26.

Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 75, no. 147, pl. p. 81.

"Reawakening at Dumbarton Oaks: The Golden Glories of the Byzantine and Early Christian Worlds," Art News 45.10.1 (1946): 15-19; 57-59, esp. 17, fig. II.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 103, no. 220, pl. p. 111.

J. Beckwith, Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300, Chapters in Art, 37 (London, 1963), 10, no. 11.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 75, no. 264, pl. 264.

K. Weitzmann, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 5-7, no. 1, pl. 1.

A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 122, fig. p. 123.

A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400, Publications / Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine Collection, 8 (Washington, D.C., 1985), 20, fig. 24.

Exhibition History
Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 22, 1985 - Jan. 06, 1986.

Acquisition History
Said to have been found in Rome. 

By 1900, collection of Ernest Guilhou (1844–1912), Paris and L Basses-Pyrénées, France.

In 1903, published as “Roman art market”; by 1910, Bignault or Canessa collection (offered for sale at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1910, lot 347, plate XXVI)

Blumka Gallery, New York.

Purchased from Blumka Gallery by Joseph Brummer (1883–1947), March 1942.

Brummer Gallery, New York (inventory N5292).

Purchased from Brummer Gallery by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., May 1942.