Relief with Aion/Phanes inside the Zodiac

Arte romana

Second quarter of second century AD

Marble, 74 x 48.7cm

Inv. 2676

The Galleria Estense, Modena

Depicting a young man within the zodiac circle, this relief presents the symbolism of two originally Eastern religions: Mithraism and Orphism. This goat-footed rendition of the Mithraic god Aion (Time) is wrapped in a serpent’s coils with the heads of a goat, a lion and a ram across his chest. The birth of the  winged figure from the cosmic egg in flames and beams of light is characteristic of the Orphic god, Phanes. 

A dedication to ‘FELIX PATER’ is featured on this slab, presumably commissioned at his expense for votive use in a Mithraeum. 

The suggestion that it was made in a Roman workshop is supported by the high quality of the sculpture, as illustrated by the young man’s figure that protrudes almost completely from amongst the zodiac signs and low relief heads of the Winds. The base of the famous Column of Antoninus Pius where a young Aion appears in the scene of the apotheosis of the emperor with his wife Faustina  serves as comparison (Vatican Museums, Rome).

The relief was part of the collection of antiquities owned by Sigismondo IV d’Este, Marquis of San Martino, whose branch of the family lasted from 1501 until 1756. Francesco III d’Este purchased the relief under the recommendation of Vincenzo Fabrizi who, according to Adolfo Venturi, was devoted to finding “plaques, mosaics and objects from antiquity” to rejuvenate the Galleria after the Dresden sale.