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The great Mithras exhibition: some personal notes

March 15, 2023

The cult of Roman Mithras attracted the attention of the academic scholarship and the greater public since the 19th century (and in the antiquarian traditions, even before, since the Renaissance). In the last few decades, the scholarship produced an incredible number of monographs and studies, there is almost every year a new book on Roman Mithras. Some might interpret this as a “renaissance” of the Mithraic Studies, however we prefer to say that finally, Mithraic Studies – which separated this cult from its own cultural, historical and polytheistic context – actually have changed and finally, interprets the Roman cult of Mithras in its own historical context, within the complex religious market of the Roman Empire (Rüpke 2018 – a short chapter on Roman Mithras, or Woolf 2019 where Mithras is one of the many global and mobile divinities of the empire scale network of religion).

One of the main issues of this research area is the materiality of the cult: with almost 120 sanctuaries excavated and thousands of epigraphic, figurative monuments and small finds in dozens of countries in Europe, Nothern-Africa and the Near East (and even in private collections in the New World), a new digital and interactive CIMRM Supplementum would be essential now. While the local studies and theoretical approaches are also important, collecting the material would be even more important. Exhibitions focusing on the cult aimed to produce important catalogues, which can serve as CIMRM Supplement, although none of these can be comprehensive and complete. Important exhibitions were organised in the last years, like the one in the Landesmuseum Karlsruhe in 2013, however that was focusing on several cults. Recently, an international project and collaboration between three major European museums produced the largest ever Mithras-exhibition, an itinerary project between Mariemont, Toulouse and Frankfurt (2021-2023). The catalogue of the itinerary exhibition was published in French and English and it is one of the best synthesis on the cult of Mithras with several new case studies and high quality photos of old and new finds as well.

Each of the exhibitions had a slightly different material and museological approach, influenced also by the local possibilities. The Mariemont exhibition was opened during the pandemic, therefore they invested a lot in the digital promotion of the event. In 12-13th March 2023 I had the chance to visit the exhibition in the Archaeological Museum of Frankfurt. The exhibition was focused around the amazing local finds from Nida-Heddernheim (today in the North-Western part of Frankfurt, in the area of the Rosa Luxemburg street and south of the Nordwestcentrum, Römerstadtschule). The Roman vicus of the fort had at least four, archaeologically well attested sanctauries of Mithras (a fifth is presumed) discovered in the 19th century (the earliest 200 years ago, in 1823). The finds are not presented in a comprehensive, catalogue-like manner, but there are several posters which explains the history of the discoveries, the context, the history of Nida-Heddernheim and the major finds of the 4 mithraea. Absurdly, there is no map with the modern Frankfurt, therefore the visitor will need to use the google map to find out where is Nida today (50.153406, 8.631575). The map of Roman Dacia appears incorrectly on one of the maps. A particuarity of these finds is the great presence of other divinities in the sanctuary: Epona, Mercurius, Hercules, which is rarely attested in other cases. The iconographic glocality of the visual narratives of Nida is only shortly presented. The great, two sided relief of Nida is in an unfortunate position in front of the reconstructed “mithraeum”, while the photo of the coloured version of this relief is in another room. The reconstructed mithraeum presents the objects in a dark room, which tries to imitate the feeling of a Mithraic sanctuary (darkness, warm environment), however the podia are too small and perhaps, using a projector, interactive voice and visual museology could make this mithraeum much more authentic. The large space of the museum (the former Carmelite Monastery) would be ideal for projections, videos, interactive solutions to use the walls and empty spaces of the monastery. Such methods we can find in Frankfurt, in the Liebieghaus, where is a temporary exhibition on ancient robots and machines presented in a really nice way which stimulates several senses of the visitor. That is what we call today sensory museology.

The second part of the material is exposed in a different room: there one can observe several interesting objects on the side-scenes of the panelled-reliefs, the amazing album from Virunum (which is indeed, a spectacular and historical find), the Brigetio signum of Mithras, several interesting, unique inscriptions and reliefs. Sadly, the amazing relief from Dieburg was not part of the exhibition, only a copy of it. Presenting the mosaics of the Felicissimus mithraeum from Ostia, the symbols of the miles are presented after the old theory, without mentioning the new approach of A. Chalupa and T. Glomb which was accepted also by R. Gordon recently. The amazing Krater from Mainz was also in the exhibition, however a presentation and contextualisation of the scenes of initiation would have been made this amazing object even more important with an interactive manner of presenting all the visualities of initiation presented amazingly recently by N. Belayche. I was happy to see two monuments from Roman Dacia too. The texts are written almost exclusively in German (which was not a problem for me, but what about foreigners with a poor-German knowledge). The work and life of F. Cumont was mentioned, however M. Vermaseren was not really evoked (he and numerous other big names of the research history would deserve at least some photos there – in Malaga, the archaeological museum and in the Ashmolean Museum there is an amazing way to present the history of discoveries, archaeologist biographies).

In summary: the catalogue of the exhibition is an amazing, great work, which serves as a methodological model for further studies, while we can learn for future exhibitions how to present ancient cults, religions, cognitive, historical, historiographic approaches, local and global case studies as well in an interactive, much more “sexy” manner for the 21st century visitors.


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