A Marble Relief of a Priest of Cybele

It’s always a pleasant surprise to visit a familiar museum and find a “new” piece. It happened to me the other day at the Capitoline Museum. Earlier this year, there was an exhibition on Johann Joachim Winckelmann (actually, it was mainly on the history of the Capitoline hill in the eighteenth century). That exhibit is now over, but in a ground-floor room of the Palazzo Nuovo (in a section of the exhibit that I completely missed) were some of the didactic materials from the exhibition along with some pieces of sculpture. I was surprised to see among them the famous relief of the priest of Magna Mater:

Capitoline Gallus wide

The relief depicts a gallus, a priest of the goddess Cybele or Magna Mater, along with several objects associated with the cult. When I have taught courses on ancient “mystery cults,” I always used this object, but I had never seen it in person before. It was larger than I had imagined it being. The relief is in a square frame with an edge of about 1.2 meters. It is usually assigned to the second century CE. For a more detailed description of the various features of the piece, one can turn to the nicely labelled diagram from the second volume of Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome:

BNP Gallus Diagram

The piece was donated to the Capitoline Museum in 1737 (there is a modern inscription running along the base of the frame of the stone: EX DONO DUCIS SFORTIAE SFORTIAE, indicating that the piece had been given by the Sforza Cesarini family). It was studied by Winckelmann (pages 7-8 in the second volume of Monumenti Antichi), presumably the reason for its inclusion in the recent Capitoline exhibition. It was, however, first published in 1737 by Domenico Giorgi [Georgi], along with an illustration:

Giorgi Gallus 1737 color


The relief is said to have been found south of Rome not long before it was donated to the Capitoline, but the story is a bit more complicated than the catalog entires usually indicate. The history of the object prior to its acquisition has recently been laid out in detail in an article by I. Della Giovampaola, “La provenienza del rilievo di Gallus ai Musei Capitolini,” Horti Hesperidum, II (2012), which is available online here.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even realize the piece was part of the Capitoline Museum collections (according to the museum label “Roma, Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini, Inv. S. 1207,” although I cannot recall ever having seen the piece on display in my previous visits to the Centrale Montemartini location). There is a fuller record with more photographs in the Capitoline Museum’s online catalog. In any event, at present it can be viewed in a room off the corridor on the ground floor of the Palazzo Nuovo (just around the corner from the great statue of Hadrian as pontifex maximus). As was the case with the Alexamenos graffito, it is wonderful to have this piece at eye-level for seeing details and taking photos:

Capitoline Gallus

Detail, funerary relief of a gallus, priest of Magna Mater (Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini, Inv. S. 1207), photo June 2018

For a recent treatment of the piece with up-to-date bibliography, see the entry by Serena Guglielmi in

Eloisa Dodero and Claudio Parisi Presicce (eds.), Il Tesoro di Antichità: Winckelmann e il Museuo Capitolino nella Roma del Settecento (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2017), p. 317 (item 109)

This entry was posted in Capitoline Museum, Find Stories, Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Marble Relief of a Priest of Cybele

  1. Melissa Sellew says:

    Nice post, thanks, and great to see such a famous item up close. What value there is in being able to return to collections repeatedly, both to get a deeper sense of what is on view and occasionally to be delighted by something unexpected.

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