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Temple of Isis

Due to the quality of the recording during the excavations conducted between 1764 and 1766, it has been possible to reconstruct the extraordinary decoration of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, famous for its splendid paintings which are full of references to the Isiac cult and the Nilotic world.

History and formationRooms LXXIX - LXXXII and LXXXIV of the museum contain a reconstruction of the extraordinary decoration of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii which came to light between 1764 and 1766. The exceptional finds immediately created a surprising amount of interest. Between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the temple became so famous that it attracted an increasing number of foreign travellers to Pompeii. A real Egyptian temple was found intact after the catastrophe of 79 AD, complete with its furnishings and the rich decoration of the frescoes with incredibly vivid colours. Due to the excellent quality of the recording made during the excavations, it has proved possible to reconstruct the furnishings and decoration; an itinerary of the temple has been organised within the museum so that visitors can view the building would have appeared to the excavators and as is documented by contemporary drawings and “copper” engravings for the Accademia Ercolanese, now used for an attractive model. The temple occupies part of the northern side of Insula VII of Regio VIII, the areas known as the theatre district. The entrance, situated along the street named after the Temple of Isis, bears a marble dedicatory inscription (now on display on room LXXXII) that describes how the reconstruction of the temple was carried out, following the earthquake of 62 AD, by Numerius Popidius Celsinus, who at the time was a six year old child, in whose name the dedication was made by his father Ampliatus, thus bestowing on his son the honour of being granted free admittance to the city senate. After entering through the threshold, one passed into the courtyard, paved in tuff slabs and surrounded by a portico decorated in Fourth Style. The building, placed in the centre of the court yard, a tetrastyle prostyle temple built on a high podium. A flight of steps led up to the pronaos and the naos, which is not very deep and has a large door. The inner and outer walls were covered in white stucco in imitation of opus quadratum, while along the end wall there was a raised brick platform coated with stucco on which there were small bases made of tuff designed to support cult statues of Isis and Osiris. The mosaic floors of the naos have unfortunately been lost but at least they were recorded by the drawings of Piranesi. At the back of the podium, within a niche, there was a statue of Dionysus with a panther, a gift of Numerius Popidius Ampliatus. Two further niches stood to the sides of the main entrance door, and may originally have been intended for the statues of Arpocrate and Anubis, to whom two altars, situated in the court in line with the niches, were dedicated. The main altar of the temple, situated to the left of the flight of steps in order to avoid impeding the ritual procession, was still covered in the ashes and burnt bones of the victims. In the eastern corner of the court area there was an aedicule with a façade of a temple; the temple facade contained a basin for holy water, which gave the building its name purgatorium. Holy water was of fundamental importance to the Isiac cult and was considered a means of purification; it is therefore extremely likely that the holy water drawn from the basin was taken away by the faithful for domestic ceremonies that were performed in the numerous Isiac lararia found in the houses of Pompeii. The external part of the small temple is decorated in extremely bright colours, painted stuccoes with a yellow, red and blue background depicting Arpocrates, Isiac figures in procession and priestesses with typical Egyptian clothing and hairstyles. The panels with loving couples between Erotes – Mars and Venus on the western side and Perseus and Andromeda on the eastern side – are particularly striking. The room that stands to the west of the court of the temple, known as the ekklesiasterion, was probably added to the temple during the restoration work organised by Celsinus. Access to the room was from the portico. Designed to hold meetings or banquets, it was found virtually intact with its black mosaic floor on which the names of the donors Numerius Popidius Celsinus, his father Ampliatus and his mother Cornelia Celsa, stood out in white tessarae. The paintings were of extremely high quality. To the south of this large room was another smaller room called the sacrarium, used to store cult objects, which could also be entered from the portico. The temple complex also included a series of rooms to the south-east of the court, already identified as the pastophorion, the apartment of the priests, and a series of ancillary rooms identified as a kitchen, triclinium and cubiculum. ItineraryThe itinerary begins in room LXXXIV, which contains the architectural decoration of the temple represented by antifixes that depict both standard motifs such as the Medusa heads and Egyptian motifs; the pediment sima, with Winged Victories holding up shields and cuirasses, and the gutter simas depicting Caryatids depart from the standard themes. The two types of decoration seem to convey a message of conquest and victory which reflects the figurative programmes which were typical of the propaganda used by Vespasian. The same room also contains some of the copper engravings done for the Accademia Ercolanese, splendid plates of extremely high artistic and cultural value which also represent important evidence about the temple. Thanks to the work of draughtsmen and engravers, it has been possible to reconstruct faded or damaged paintings, destroyed or missing mosaics, cult objects, considered of unknown or uncertain provenance. Rooms LXXXI and LXXXII display the magnificent Fourth Style decoration of the end wall of the portico that surrounded the courtyard of the temple. The decorative layout has a continuous pattern which is repeated on all the walls with interruptions that correspond to the niches or communicating rooms which do not alter the sequence of architectural and ornamental motifs. The lower part of the decoration consists of sections with paterae and bucranii, and panels with pairs of lionesses or sphinxes arranged to the sides of a gorgoneion, alternating with a dragon between two dolphins. In the middle zone there are architectural views with small paintings with a Nilotic theme or naval battles, alternating with red panels with depictions of priests in ceremonial costume and landscape scenes inspired Egyptian architecture. Further up there is an elegant frieze with plant volutes on a black background with Isiac motifs, above which is an upper zone with a white background that contained aedicules suspended in air and, above it, small paintings with landscapes and still lifes, possibly alluding to real offerings of food to the goddess. Of the various sculptures presented as offerings to the goddess and arranged in the portico, there is a marble statues of Isis with the hankt, the symbol of life, and the sistrum, a splendid archaic work dedicated by Lucius Caecilius Phoebus, and a herm with a bronze portrait of Caius Norbanus Sorex, a magister of the pagus Augustus Felix Suburbanus and, as emerges from the dedicatory inscription on the pilaster, a deuteragonist (second actor). Room LXXIX contains the splendid Fourth style paintings found in the ekklesiasterion, which included large paintings, of which there are five on display with Egyptian sacred-idyllic landscapes and two with episodes of the myth of the nymph Io. These last two paintings, definitely copies of Alexandrian originals, illustrate the episode regarding the liberation of Io by Hermes from her imprisonment by Argus, and the episode of the arrival of Io in Canopus in Egypt. A splendid marble head of Isis was found near the entrance to the ekklesisterion; it could be identified from the feather on her head, which perhaps belonged to the official cult statue, the body made of wood covered in clothes made of real fabrics. Room LXXX cntains the far more modest paintings that decorated the sacrarium, the room used for the initiation of potential followers of the Isiac cult. The figures and typical scenes of the cult were painted on a white background: the ibis, the ox Apis, the jackal, Osiris on the throne, the navigium Isidis, which depicts the transportation of the holy water, the symbol of Osiris the regenerator, used in all Isiac ceremonies.

Further information
Collection data

Alla ricerca di Iside 1992; Museo Archeologico 1994; Museo Archeologico 1999; Sampaolo 2003.

Location: first floor; rooms LXXIX - LXXXII, LXXXIV