In contrast to the sacrifice of a heifer, the ritual sacrifice of a bull figured prominently in an entirely different religious ceremony, one that centered on the worship of the Persian god Mithras. Mithraism was one of many foreign cults that gained popular acceptance in Rome and its provinces. Members of the army especially favored Mithraism, embracing it because of its promise of immortality and personal salvation.
The Art Museum’s relief shows Mithras himself ritually slaying the bull. Depicted in the conventional idiom, the Persian god corrals his victim by the muzzle and plunges a short sword into its throat. The act is attended and sanctified by the presence of the sun god Helios (the Roman Sol), who appears at the upper left as a radiate bust. The conventional Mithraic symbols of a dog, a snake, and a scorpion assist in the act.
The archeological contexts of similar sculptures demonstrate that this relief, which can be dated to the latter half of the second century A.D., served as the focus of worship in one of the many underground sanctuaries in Rome devoted to Mithras.