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Relief with Artemis

Roman art

This relief two draped female figures facing one another. The woman on the left is sitting on a chair and rests her feet on a small stool; she is looking at a swaddled infant held out by the standing woman. There is a deer resting under the chair. In the background, a leafy tree frames and defines the scene, evoking a rural setting.

According to one interpretation, the seated figure is the goddess Artemis, in her role as Kourotrophos, nourisher of infants, depicted looking at a newborn held out to her by the other woman. In another interpretation, the infant is Telephus, son of Heracles and Auge, a priestess of Athena, being presented to his mother by a handmaiden.

The relief, set in a modern frame, was discovered in 1766 on the Borghese estate at Torrenova, on Via Labicana.

Object details

prima metà II secolo d.C.
Luni marble
cm. 86 x75

Found on the Borghese estate at Torrenova, on Via Labicananel 1766. Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 45, n. 51 (?). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996-1997, Consorzio Capitolino


This relief was discovered in 1766, during excavations at the Borghese estate at Torrenova on Via Labicana; the property belonged to the Borghese family from 1683 until the end of World War I. The find was reported by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in 1767 (Winckelmann 1767, p. 96, pl. 71) and again by Antonio Nibby in 1832 (Nibby 1832, pp. 63–65, no. 8; p. 67, pl. 18).

It was inserted into a modern frame and displayed on the wall. The figures are portrayed in a rural setting evoked by a leafy tree in the background that closes the visual plane at the top, covering the scene while also dividing it into two halves, one for each of the two figures, joined at the focal point created by the infant held by both. The two draped female figures are shown facing one another: the one on the left, sitting on a chair with her feet resting on a small stool, is looking at the swaddled baby held out to her by the standing woman. There is a deer resting under the chair.

According to one interpretation, the sitting figure is the goddess Artemis, wearing a bandolier across her chest, in her role as Kourotrophos, nourisher of infants, depicted looking at a newborn held out to her by a woman asking for the goddess’s protection: indeed, the standing figure is looking at the seated one, who in turn looks at the little one she is about to receive. The figure of Artemis, linked to the phases of motherhood, was especially popular in Asia Minor and Sparta in her role as Lochia, ‘protector of childbirth’, and Kourotrophos. More generally, the goddess was a bringer of light: ‘torch-bearing goddess bringing light to all, Dikynna, helper at childbirth, you help women in labor, though you know not what labor is … Orthia, goddess of swift birth, you are a nurturer of mortal youths’ (Orphic Hymn to Artemis, 35).

In a relief fragment found on the Esquiline Hill and now in the Museo Nuovo Capitolino, Artemis is shown seated, wearing a chiton and himation, and holding out her hand to a deer at her feet (Mustilli, 1939, p. 86, no. 6, pl. 50, no. 207; Kahil, 1984, p. 672, no. 672). Another relief, in the National Museum of Athens, has a composition similar to that of the Borghese sculpture, with the goddess sitting on a throne and a tree closing the scene (Svorōnos, 1908, pp. 336–340, no. 87, pl. 55; Kahil, 1984, p. 679, no. 740).

In another interpretation of the relief, the infant is Telephus, son of Heracles and Auge, a priestess of Athena and loved by the hero, presented to his mother by a handmaiden. In this case, the deer would be the animal who nursed Telephus when he was abandoned in the forest by order of Aleus, father of Auge and king of Arcadia. In the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus told the story of Auge, seduced in secret by Eracles and cast out by her father, since as a priestess of Athena she had taken a vow of chastity. The woman, spared by the man tasked with killing her, was taken to Asia Minor, where she married the king of Mysia. The child, abandoned in the bushes, was nursed by a deer and saved by shepherds, who brought him to the king of Corinth, who adopted him (Diod. Bibliotheca historica 4.33.7).

The composition references the iconography of Attic funerary stele, depicting family scenes filled with pathos following clearly defined, easily recognisable visual formulas. The imagery of the Borghese relief evokes the moment when a secondary figure, either a handmaiden or a relative, brings a child to the deceased (who is seated) for a last farewell. Two stele, one in the Shelby White and Leon Lévy Collection, New York, and one in London, both datable to the fifth or fourth century CE, have a very similar compositional structure (Catoni, 2005, pp. 31–33, figs. 3-4).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • J. J. Winckelmann, Monumenti antichi inediti, Roma 1767
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 65, n. 8, p. 67, tav. 18
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p.11, n.21
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 914, n. 21
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 13, n. 20
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p.21
  • G. Giusti, La GalerieBorghèse et la Ville Humbert Premier à Rome, Roma 1904, p.20
  • J. N. Svoronos, DasAthenerNationalmuseum, Atene 1908
  • W. Helbig, Führer durch die öffentlichenSammlungenklassischerAltertümerin Rom (3° Edizione), a cura di W.Amelung, II, Leipzig 1913, p. 235, n. 1536
  • W. Amelung, P.Arndt, G.Lippold, PhotographischeEinzelaufnahmenantiker Skulpturen, X, 1, München 1925, p. 7, n. 2727
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma,Roma 1935, p. 8
  • D. Mustilli, Il Museo Mussolini, Roma 1939
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 7
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p.16, n.168
  • T.Hadzisteliou Price, KourotrophosCults and Representations of the Greek Nursing Deities, Leiden 1978
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p.102, fig. 91
  • L. Kahil, s.v. Artemis, “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, II,1, Zürich München 1984, pp. 618-753, in part. pp. 672, 676, 679, 748
  • C. Bauchhenss-Thüriedl, s.v. Auge, “LexiconIconographicumMythologiaeClassicae”, III, Zürich1986, pp.45-51, in part. p.50, n.32
  • R. Lanciani, Storia degli scavi di Roma e notizie intorno le collezioni romane di antichità, V, Roma 1994, p. 29
  • P. Moreno, L’antico nella stanza, in Venere vincitrice: La Sala di Paolina Bonaparte alla Galleria Borghese, Roma 1997, pp. 73-117, in part. pp.111-112
  • P. Brulé, Le langage des épiclèses dans le polythéismehellénique(l’exemple de Quelques divinités féminines), in “Kernos”, 22, 1998, pp. 13-34, in part. p. 31
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 77, n.18
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp.158-159, n. 126
  • M. L. Cantoni, Le regole del vivere, le regole del morire: Su alcune stele attiche per Donne morte di parto, in “Revue Archéologique”, 2005, Nouvelle Série, Fasc. 1, pp. 27-53
  • Mater. Percorsi simbolici sulla maternità, catalogo della mostra (Parma, Palazzo del Governatore, 8 marzo - 28 giugno 2015), a cura di A. Andreoli, C. D. Fonseca, E. Fontanella, Roma 2015
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/99000044, G. Ciccarello 2020