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When Is an Isis a Venus?

In the ancient world, distinctions among representations of individual divinities are not always clear-cut. A typical example of this blurring of boundaries is the small bronze group of Venus and Cupid that was found in the Egyptian Fayoum and purchased by the University of Michigan in 1925. The statuette portrays a standing deity identifiable as the goddess Venus by the small winged figure of Cupid, her son, perched on her right shoulder.

The goddess stands on her right leg with her left leg bent. She rests her left elbow on a pillar and holds her right arm akimbo. She wears her outer garment folded at the waist in the manner of Venus Genetrix, who was the ancestress and patron deity of the family of Julius Caesar. Presumably she wears another garment beneath her outer one, although the worn surface of the statuette makes it difficult to differentiate between garments and flesh. Due to corrosion, the details of her face are almost indistinguishable. Her hair rises up from her forehead, with the sides plaited and drawn back, and her only jewelry consists of a bracelet on her right wrist. Cupid dangles his right leg alongside Venus’s right breast. His left leg is bent, and he holds a small round object—perhaps an apple or a pomegranate-in his right hand.

Because this statuette was found in Egypt, it was believed to represent Isis, an Egyptian goddess associated with the fertility of women and agriculture, and her divine son, Harpocrates, in the guises of Venus and Cupid. Isis was identified with a wide variety of Hellenic and Roman deities, including Artemis/Diana, Demeter/Ceres, and Aphrodite/Venus, and during the Graeco-Roman period her images often incorporated Graeco-Roman hairstyles, garments, or attributes. The main cults of Harpocrates were located at Pelusium in the Egyptian Delta and in the Fayoum oasis, where Harpocrates was worshipped in several guises. Outside of Egypt, Harpocrates was typically portrayed as the nursing child of Isis. Graeco-Egyptian terracotta or bronze statuettes, like this Kelsey figurine, were produced in great numbers.

Although syncretizations of Isis and Aphrodite/Venus are popular in the art of Graeco-Roman Egypt, this particular statue lacks certain attributes that would readily identify the goddess and god-child as Isis and Harpocrates. For one thing, when the maternal aspect of Isis is emphasized, the goddess commonly is portrayed as seated and nursing her son. This makes the placement of the boy-god on the shoulder of the Kelsey standing goddess an unusual choice for a hellenized Egyptian statuette. In addition, the goddess does not appear to be wearing a headdress to distinguish her as Isis. Finally, the identification of the boy-god as Harpocrates rather than Cupid is difficult to justify because the winged god lacks the traditional features of Harpocrates: he wears neither the sun disk between two horns nor the Egyptian royal crown and uraeus; he does not wear his hair in a sidelock; he does not suck his thumb. Without such Egyptian attributes or a known archaeological context for the Kelsey statuette, it is only possible to identify this Venus and Cupid with Isis and Harpocrates in a very general sense.

The Kelsey statuette does, however, conform to a statue type that was well known in Roman Italy, both in terms of the drapery and the figural grouping. In Rome itself, a Venus with a Cupid perched on her shoulder was posed and draped in a manner that closely parallels that of the Kelsey figurine. This Roman Venus Genetrix adorned the late first-century BC/early first-century AD pediment of the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus. Such portrayals of Venus also were adopted by imperial women for their own statues. For example, a marble statue from an imperial villa at Punta Epitaffio, Italy, portrays Antonia Minor, the mother of the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD), as Venus. Her outer garment is folded at the waist in the manner of Venus Genetrix, and a small Cupid perches on her left hand, leaning against her shoulder. Imperial images such as this one adapted the statue type established for Venus, as represented by the Augustan pediment and the Kelsey figurine, in order to highlight the motherly characteristics of the represented imperial woman and to suggest the assimilation of the woman to Venus, the patron goddess of the Julian family.

The date of the Kelsey example is uncertain, although it could be contemporary with or later than the images of imperial women as Venus Genetrix. If so, the Kelsey statuette might incorporate an element of imperial iconography, which may provide one possible explanation for the presence of a statuette of Venus Genetrix in the Fayoum.

—Brenda Longfellow