Ancient Egypt 135 Letters

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Dear Editor,

While staying in Pisa, I came across an unusual sight when passing by the former church of Santi Felice e Regolo. This 11th-century church, now a palazzo, has a façade incorporating two capitals, one of which shows Harpocrates (‘Horus, the child’), Isis, and Serapis. Isis can be easily identified due to her sistrum. On her head is a sun disc with cow horns. Harpocrates is shown as a young boy with his finger at the mouth. A fourth figure shows again a female goddess with sun disc and cow horns, and might be the Syrian goddess Ceres. The other capital shows Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno, the Capitoline Triad which formed the centre of Roman state religion.

A figurative capital depicting ancient Egyptian deities from a Roman Period temple, reused in a mediaeval church (now a palazzo) in Pisa.

From the Hellenistic Period (c.320 to 30 BC) onwards, the cults of Isis and Serapis spread across the Greek world, and later within the Roman Empire. The cult of Isis was especially popular in Italy, where many temples for her were erected. The most famous one is the Isis Temple at Pompeii, discovered and well recorded in the 18th century (see AE 80). It even inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (the composer had visited the temple in 1769/1770, shortly after its discovery). Other Isis temples are not as well preserved, but a high number of Egyptian objects in Italian collections come from those Roman Isis temples.

The image of Isis wearing a sun disc with cow horns and carrying a sistrum.

Pisa, famous for its Leaning Tower, was also an important Roman town. Not much is left from the Roman city, as it is well protected, lying under the still-standing Renaissance town. However, many decorated Roman stones (not only from Pisa) were reused in mediaeval times when Pisa was a rich and powerful city, and the two early 3rd-century figurative capitals of the Santi Felice e Regolo are of special importance.

The style of the carving of the figures is intriguing. The images are close in style to works of Syrian origin: they would fit perfectly in a place such as Palmyra. The capitals come perhaps from an Isis-Serapis temple. Whether the temple was standing in Pisa or at another place remains unknown. Roman inscriptions found at Pisa mention an Isis temple, but we cannot be sure whether these inscribed blocks are from Pisa or were brought in from elsewhere. The style of the figures might indicate the Levant as an origin, but we should not exclude the possibility that they were created by Syrian artists working in Italy. One example for comparison is a stela found in England at Hadrian’s Wall. The stela belonged to a Palmyrian and is executed in Palmyrian style!

If you wish to see the capitals with the Egyptian and Roman deities, the palazzo can be found in the Via Ulisse Dini, at the centre of Pisa.

Wolfram Grajetzki

Images: Wolfram Grajetzki
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