Roman rule over Egypt began with the arrival of Octavian (later known as Augustus) in 30 BC, following his defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, at the famous battle of Actium in 31 BC. The young and ambitious first emperor of Rome demolished the existing Ptolemaic monarchy and instead presented himself as successor to the pharaohs, annexing the country as a Roman province of special status. The conquest of Egypt and its incorporation into the Roman empire gave rise to a new fascination with the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians, and initiated a fusion of Roman and Egyptian styles, traditions and beliefs. The cult of Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, for instance, grew immeasurably throughout the empire, and obelisks and Egyptian-style architecture were erected in Roman fora.
The present attachment perfectly captures this fusion of Roman and Egyptian ideas, taking the Egyptian sphinx in female form (itself a Greek tradition), and employing it for use on a Roman vessel. These elements combine to produce a beautifully intricate and intriguing adornment, which is a work of art in its own right. The support takes the form of a four-toed feline claw (perhaps a reference to the lion, whose form the sphinx assumed), at the top of which is a calyx of leaves. From this emerges the bust of a sphinx, with wings outstretched, wearing an Egyptian headdress. The artist has paid great attention to detail, carefully rendering the different types of feathers on the wings, and adding a uraeus (sacred serpent), symbol of royalty and supreme power, to the headdress. The sphinx was part of a long tradition in both Egyptian and Greek art. In both cultures, the creature was regarded as possessing ferocious strength, which could manifest itself either benevolently or malevolently, and as a guardian, for which reason their images often flanked the entrances of temples.
This support very likely once adorned the foot of a bronze vessel. Bronze feet in the form of sphinxes are known from the archaic period (for example, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 2000.660), during which time elaborate bronze vessels became the preeminent creations of Greek artists. Mythological creatures, such as sphinxes and griffins, were used to provide protection as well as decoration. Extremely similar decorative elements from Pompeii attest to Roman adoption of this practice, although, here, the examples lack the Egyptianizing elements. The overtly Egyptian appearance of the sphinx on our piece indicates that it was made in Egypt for Romano-Egyptian clients, or, that it was exported from Egypt to other parts of the empire, to meet the demand of elite Romans who were embracing the love for all things Egyptian. A very similar support, but with the female lacking an Egyptian headdress, adorns the front two feet of a bronze brazier from the Stabian Baths at Pompeii (Naples Archaeological Museum, end of first century BC), and the inscription attests to its donation by a certain Marcus Nigidius Vaccula, for the heating of the tepidarium. A bronze brazier from the House of the Faun in Pompeii is also decorated with similar front feet, although here the female bust has been replaced with that of a lion (Naples Archaeological Museum, inv. 72991). A parallel featuring the Egyptian headdress, but overall far less finely executed than the present example, is displayed in the J. Paul Getty Museum, California (inv. 80. AC. 23, first century AD), said to have been manufactured in Egypt.
Private collection, UK, late 1970s.
London Art market, 2012.