Oil-lamp with an image of Isis and Sarapis

Oil-lamp with an image of Isis and Sarapis

A medallion with a moulded frame is in the middle of a rounded oil-lamp with a rounded nozzle. Between the edge of the medallion and the edge of the lamp there is a simple lined motif. Inside the medallion, one next to the other, there are depictions of the busts of Isis and Sarapis. Isis on the left. Her hair is gathered in a bun that descends down the back of her head. In front she wears a lotus flower. Sarapis is to the right, with thick hair and beard. He wears a kalathos and a seven-pointed radial crown on his head. Isis and Sarapis appear in the figuration together on the staters minted by Ptolemy IV Philophator in Alexandria at around the year 217 BC. These are superimposed busts in profile, one behind the other. The motif of facing busts was, it would appear, from the Roman era. It appeared during the Flavian era on series of oil-lamps made in Italy. There Sarapis was often dpicted together with a katahos, and with a radial crown, which indicates identification of Serapis with Helius, and dated to the reign of Domitian.

The motif appeared once more in the latter half of the second century on a series of oil-lamps manufactured in proconsular Afrca. Here "the artist was satisfied with showing two facing busts in the most perfect harmony. The details were simply limited to the most necessary" (TRan Tam Tinh 1970:77). This oil-lamp also belongs to Loeschke's type VIII, like the African examples. The arangment is identical: Sarapis is always on the right side, depicted in leftward profile, while Isis is opposite. The determative for Sarapis is the kalathos, and a radial crown also appears. Isis is, as on this oil-lamp, depicted with hair gathered in a bun, while on her head there is the standard determinative of bovine horns and a sun disk, with two feathers or sheaves. In this case, the headgear is replaced with a lotus flower. The possibility here may have come to the Adriatic coast from Africa should not be excluded. While appearances of Isis and Sarapis together in the Hellenistic era were a paraphrase of the royal couple which renewed the ancient Egyptian ritual of marriage between brothers and sisters, in the Roman era, to which this oil-lamp belongs, the Egyptisn motif was translated into a different defitionatal key. This is the exaltation of the the so-called concordia Augustorum, the harmony between the spouses at the head of the state, whether Commodus and Crispina or Alexander Severus and Julia Mamaea. Portrayals of Sarapis and Isis gazing at each other would reflect a comparison between the harmony between the imperial spouses and divine harmony.

Catalogue entry

Round oil-lamp from terracotta with an image of Isis and Serapis
Archaeological Museum Zadar, Zadar
Inv. no. AMZd A-10180; old inv. nos. I.e. 6820, t.k. 4379, L.163
Nin (Aenona)
Roman Empire, the 2nd c. A.D.
terracotta: baked earth, moulding
10.1 x 4 x 7.3 cm
archaeological excavation, 1896


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