In the Imperial era, which began under the emperor Augustus, the Roman government established a tradition of state-sponsored art in Rome and its territories. With state or municipal funds, public monuments of various kinds were commissioned to commemorate religious, political, and military events. Such monuments reminded the populace of the piety of the imperial house and of the centralized authority of the state. One common form of public religious monument was the altar—a raised stone structure dedicated to a god, which served as a focal point of worship and ritual sacrifice.
This life-sized depiction of a heifer, or young cow, was part of such an altar, perhaps dedicated to the goddess Juno, to whom the cow was sacred. In a fashion typical of such sculptural decoration, the Art Museum’s heifer is depicted in profile relief; only its head, which angles away from the background, is sculpted fully in the round. The heifer’s refined naturalism, with attention to the realistic modeling of ribs and veins, reveals a strong debt to Hellenistic Greek art.