The Temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis in Pompeii was discovered in 1764 during the initial archaeological excavations of the ancient Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was one of the first buildings to be unearthed, and its walls still bore beautiful ancient paintings.

Excavations in Pompeii began in 1748 under the sponsorship of King Charles III of Spain. In 1764, Swiss military engineer Karl Jakob Weber was supervising the excavations when his workers unearthed the remains of a small but nearly intact temple adorned with paintings and sculptures. On July 20, 1765, engineer Francisco La Vega confirmed through an inscription that it was a temple dedicated to Isis.

The cult of the goddess Isis, originating from Egypt, had spread widely throughout the Greco-Roman world. In Pompeii, it is believed to have arrived around 100 BC. Isis was revered as the goddess of fertility, magic, and eternal salvation. Her cult particularly attracted women, slaves, and freedmen. For women, participation in the cult of Isis was an opportunity to engage in religious life similar to men.

The purgatorium and the main altar, to the left of the access stairs to the temple
The purgatorium and the main altar, to the left of the access stairs to the temple. Credit: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta on Wikimedia Commons

The excavated Temple of Isis had been rebuilt after the earthquake that damaged Pompeii in 62 AD. It was the only religious building that had been completely reconstructed by the time of the Vesuvian eruption. This highlights the importance of its cult in the daily life of Pompeians. Even when the Roman Senate had proscribed the cult of Isis decades earlier, its popularity in Pompeii had only increased over time.

The temple’s architecture, elevated on a platform, combined Egyptian, Greek, and Roman elements. It featured columns around it and was decorated internally and externally with elaborate frescoes in Hellenistic style, depicting mythological scenes and the goddess Isis herself. The design also included a purgatorium, an outdoor area for ritual water brought from the Nile.

The temple’s interior area, or naos, housed the statues of Isis and Osiris. At the back was a large meeting hall (ekklesiasterion) where initiates in the cult participated in rituals. Adjacent to this hall was the sacrarium, which housed the temple’s most precious objects.

Rear view of the temple, with the eastern portico of six columns.
Rear view of the temple, with the eastern portico of six columns. Credit: Following Hadrian on Wikimedia Commons – Flickr

Among the discoveries were fragments of statues and ritual materials, which, along with the frescoes and other recovered objects, are currently displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The temple itself remains intact and is visitable in modern Pompeii.

The intricate frescoes adorning the temple walls depicted various mythological scenes. In the ekklesiasterion was a fresco of Io, a priestess of Hera transformed into a cow by Zeus to conceal their affair. Other scenes included Io’s arrival in Egypt and her reception by Isis. On another wall was depicted Io alongside other characters from Greek mythology such as Argus and Hermes.

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Pompeii and the temple in 1769 when he was only 13 years old. That experience influenced his famous opera “The Magic Flute”, premiered in 1791. The opera’s scenes and backgrounds reproduce elements of the Temple of Isis.

Io and Isis depicted in a fresco on the south wall of the ekklesiasterion of the temple.
Io and Isis depicted in a fresco on the south wall of the ekklesiasterion of the temple. Credit: WolfgangRieger / Public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The temple also inspired illustrations and accounts from various artists and writers of the time. Some of these representations, while helping to spread knowledge of the site, contained inaccuracies and even exaggerated the size of the temple. Engravings by Piranesi in his book Antiquités de Pompeii from 1804 or those by Jean Claude Richard de Saint Non in Voyage Pittoresque ou Description des Royaumes de Naples et de Sicile from 1782 are examples of this.

The fantastic descriptions and illustrations of the temple are steeped in the “Egyptomania” taste characteristic of late 18th-century European neoclassicism and preromanticism. Egyptian culture was viewed in an exotic light and captivated the imagination of artists who often never visited Pompeii.

The discovery of the Temple of Isis opened a window to the past and the richness of religious life before the devastating eruption. Its early excavation in the history of archaeology inspired works of art that helped spread knowledge of Pompeii in the popular imagination.

Another view of the temple of Isis
Another view of the temple of Isis. Credit: Mentnafunangann on Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 24, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El templo de Isis en Pompeya, uno de los primeros edificios en ser desenterrado de las cenizas

Sources

Tempio di Iside (Parco Archeologico di Pompei) | Sharon Kelly Heyob, The Cult of Isis Among Women in the Graeco-Roman World | Giovanni Casadio, Patricia A. Johnston, Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia | Alison E. Cooley, Pompeii | Wikipedia


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