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Religion, Cults, and Rites in Roman Art

Faith in the existence of the impalpable and infallible divine being was a common theme among Roman artists during the time of the empire. During this time, people did not have sacred texts, and thus they relied on art to express their thoughts concerning religious matters. As such, sculptures and paintings among other artistic works were made to depict different deities. Graphical and sculptural representation of the divinity of God was the only way could make Roman temples theologically relevant and active places. However, the desire to experience the presence of gods was not restricted to places of worship, and thus Roman gods were everywhere embedded in drinking vessels, on coins, and in different domestic wares such as murals and paintings.

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After the formation of the Roman Empire, concerted efforts were made to expand its influence across different geographical locations hence bringing in different cultures and religions. Rome adopted a common approach towards inclusivity by recognizing different religions as Roman including deities, cults, and all manner of beliefs. For instance, individuals who recognized the Roman hegemony were allowed to keep their cults and religious calendars without the involvement of the Roman religious law. As such, these individuals came up with artworks to depict their beliefs and gods. Non-Roman deities flourished and associated cultic centers such as the Alexandrian Serapium were built. Military settlements also expanded the concept of religious cults as soldiers were allowed to follow whichever deities they wanted. Traders and other travelers introduced different cultic deities from places such as Greece, Persia, India, and Egypt among other places. All these cults had followers are they relied heavily on artworks to establish a point of contact between themselves and the gods that they worshiped.

For instance, Mithraism was a mysterious religion where people worshiped the god Mithra. His wall paintings and sculptures were common among the followers of this cult. Others worshiped Cybele, whose magnificent sculpture showed her enthroned with lion cornucopia, with a mural crown on her head. Jupiter was considered as the god of all gods and his statute was found in different places of worship where people would approach him and pray for more powers. Mosaics of goddess Medusa were also discovered through archaeological excavations. Jews and their religion, Judaism, were also allowed to have their places of worship – synagogues, which were an embodiment of religious artworks. Synagogues, like temples and other places of worship, were adorned with murals and sculptures to create a sense of the presence of divinity in such places. Christian artifacts started emerging after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. Items like rings and seals were engraved with motifs, such as doves or lighthouse. Other emblems which were common among Christian artists were images of the “good shepherd” among others.

Religious rituals were also common themes in Roman art. Specifically, the Roman state religious ceremonies were popular, and they involved practices and cults authorized by the government. These rites were carried out by public priests or magistrates to commemorate certain events, such as triumphal arches or to sensitize people about some policies such as the Alter of Peace. In most cases, these rites were depicted using sculptures or highly adorned public monuments that were erected in strategic places around the empire. These artworks would capture the sacrifices that were involved in these rites. Other religious reliefs focused on the emperor, especially his achievements and cults. One of the common such artworks depicted the Suovetaurilia rite whereby a bull, a sheep, and a pig were sacrificed.

Religion was also common in Roman art in the paintings of catacombs and sarcophagi. Death held an important place in the lives of Romans, and thus they would take time to decorate tombs and caskets in the preparation of paying their last respect to the dead. Specifically, the wealthier class would invest a lot in artistic works to decorate tombs for their loved ones. In the catacombs, the graves would be ornamentally fitted with panel paintings, and this practice gave rise to a new Christian iconography embedded in paintings and sculptures. Biblical art also emerged to replace the hitherto pagan artworks, which has been adopted in the Christian faith. The common artistic Biblical works focused on the theme of salvation including the birth and baptism of Jesus. Others focused on biblical stories, such as Daniel in the den of lions, Jonah in the belly of a whale, and the resurrection of Lazarus. For instance, a synagogue at Dura-Euporos was decorated extensively using fresco paintings rich in biblical illustrations.

Religion played an important role in Roman art during the time of the Empire. Artistic works were used to make places of worship theologically relevant and active because written texts on different religions were not available at the time. Cults were common as people from diverse backgrounds and cultures were allowed to continue worshipping their gods. Rituals were also common specifically those commemorating public events and honoring the emperor. All these religious activities were captured in different reliefs such as sculptures and paintings.

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