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isis and the virgin mary: a pagan conversion

meg baker

The essence of idolatry is that it permits real physical interactions to take place between persons and divinities.

— Alfred Gell (1998: 135)


Through the icon of Christ and his works of salvation, it is he whom we adore. Through sacred images of the holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented.

— Catechism of the Catholic Church (Article 1192)

Representation of the divine plays a fundamental role in the construction of all faiths, whether that materialization manifests itself in elaborate displays or through deliberate non-representation. The power of iconography is crucial in the power of Catholic worship, and the history of the church is generally identified by its defense of icons and construction of ornate shrines and cathedrals. However, in the late second century, the Christian church was characterized by its complete lack of devotional objects in favor of full concentration on the power of scripture.  The nature of the church shifted dramatically in the third and fourth centuries as the process of Christianization necessitated an exchange between the cultural systems of Roman society and the belief structures of the Christian church.

When converts flooded the church during the fourth century, they brought their cultural practices with them. As a result, the church assimilated rituals and objects commonly associated with paganism into Christian worship. Pagan rituals revolved around materiality and physicality which allowed individuals to experience their beliefs and connect with the divine. The tangibility of the sacred through devotional objects demystified the connection to the divine making the unintelligible intelligible. Christianity had to adapt in order to satisfy these societal needs. The extent to which pagan practices directly influenced Christianity cannot be measured. Nevertheless, it is clear that the rituals and iconography of the church became more elaborate and complex following the influx of a large portion of society into the church in the fourth century.
The early Christian church’s success depended on its successful assimilation of the material cultural associated with religious practice. One particular type of object exists in the threshold between the pagan and Christian worlds, providing a concrete metaphor for the nature of conversion and Roman Christianization: statues of Isis renewed as the Virgin Mary. Popular imagery of Isis was integrated into the new church in several ways. First, some statues themselves were physically converted and reused as icons of the Virgin Mary. Additionally, conventional iconography of the Egyptian goddess may have been adopted in the production of new works in order to portray the nature of Mary. Isis was commonly depicted seated holding the infant Horus which could have easily been translated into the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus as a child. Later images of Isis typically portrayed the goddess alone, standing shrouded in fabric and often holding a sistrum. Apuleius described such statues in the Golden Ass, in which suppliants clothed, bathed, and fed the goddess and new converts were costumed in her image. With the addition of some fabric and the extraction of Egyptian details,the “Mother of the Universe” would have stood visibly and clearly converted into the “Mother of God”.

As the first mystery cult based on salvation introduced into the Roman Empire, the cult of Isis may have ideologically set the stage for the success of Christianity. Although the speculation of parallels between the cult of Isis and Christianity is extensive, historical records can only tenuously substantiate the cult’s influence on the early church. Nevertheless, the conversion of a pagan devotional object into a Christian icon raises important questions about the nature of conversion, its societal implications, and the future of Christianity’s relationship to iconography.

The process through which a deity is physically manufactured by human agents through earthly materials remains a topic of great importance. How does one attribute divine properties to an object which has been clearly designed and realized by human hands. Lynn Meskell notes that in ancient Egypt sculptors were not considered secular artisans but existed rather as both priest and technician (Meskell, 105). Statues, like that of Isis, would have been constructed as vessels for divine power. Although the works were clearly recognized as images, the social networks into which they were embedded mobilized their spiritual efficacy. “Standing in for their prototypes,” Egyptian idols became indispensable loci for the performance of religious practice. The role of the manufacturer and the spiritual identity of the object become even more convoluted in the case of a statue of Isis which has been appropriated for Christian worship. In some sense this provides a true mystical notion of sacredness to the object since its sanctity predates Christianity. The statue is so far removed from the initial circumstance of production and the identity of the manufacturer is so obscure that its earthly origins become inconsequential or even overlooked.

The physical origins of a sacred object are generally problematic from an ideological standpoint. In what sense an object is considered sacred is a particularly complicated when analyzing an object which has been converted from idol to icon. Clearly, the shift in context from paganism to Christianity would have had a profound effect on the identity and meaning of a statue. The social networks which mobilize the sanctity of an object in specific moments and places determine its nature and efficacy (Meskell, 115). By this rationale, a devotional object should seemingly be able to transition between religious frameworks if the beliefs of those using it and the manner in which it is employed create its meaning per moment. However, it is necessary to then question to what extent such an object can be divorced from its history and whether the implications of its present can undo its past. The distinction between icons and idols remains incredibly vague, and the issue continues to be problematic for the Catholic Church. A smooth transition from idolatry to the use of icons for meditation was impossible during the early phases of Christianization. The face of religion had changed but the beliefs which accompanied these objects and rituals inevitably carried over into the new faith. The religious world of antiquity maintained its character only “under new management” (MacMullen, 122). The parallels between Isis and Mary illustrate how the continuity of materiality may have eased societal conversion but complicated true spiritual conversion for individuals.

According to Gell, Catholics continue to practice “de facto idolatry” even by utilizing icons in order to achieve understanding of the divine (135). It is impossible to ascertain to what degree the mystery cult of Isis influenced the early Christian beliefs and worship. Nevertheless, the use of Isis as a model for arguably the most important Christian icon outside the Holy Trinity carries important implications for the nature of the church after the unbridled success of Christianization following the late fourth century. The use of Isis in Christian iconography serves as a recognition of the deity’s sanctity. This may validate the sacred nature of Isis or it may be seen as an effort to dominate and overwrite the influential spiritual movement. The church’s long history of iconoclasm and struggle with idolatry may be symptomatic of the indistinctive nature of icons and idols. Still, the integration of pagan objects like statues of Isis in early Christian worship may lie at the root of this unresolved issue.


Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Meskell, Lynn. Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Berg Oxford International Publishers, 2004.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

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