The Mother goddesses of Capua

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In Petrara locality, among the countryside of Curti, an ancient tufa podium was found [1]. There, within an area owned by the Patturelli family, the remains of a complex cult building and dozens of carved mothers, the so-called Matres Matutae (Mother Goddesses) of ancient Capua, were discovered. The site was located not far from the Porta Iovis, the eastern entrance to the city on the Appian Way.

It was 1845, and the Patturelli family decided to cover everything up for the fear of losing ownership of the land; only in 1873 the finds were “rediscovered”, but the intention was to resell the most valuable pieces on the illegal antiques market. The excavations revealed an exceptional heritage, consisting of more than a hundred tuff sculptures of matres with infants and other minor subjects, numerous terracottas, vessels, and inscriptions in the Oscan language. Some of the finds were transferred abroad, and only thanks to the founding of the Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua in 1874 they were kept locally.

Mother goddesses of Capua
Some Matres Matutae (Mother goddesses) at the Museo Provinciale Campano of Capua

Fondo Patturelli Sanctuary

A substantial part of Fondo Patturelli’s findings were lost. The excavations were not documented, and the architectural structures of the sanctuary, intact at the time of discovery, were disassembled. This constitutes a limitation to the study of Capuan finds today: the inappropriate methods of excavation have made it difficult to analyze the archaeological context of discovery, which is as important as the material evidence. Based on the few excavation reports of the time, Herbert Koch tried to reconstruct the cult building, which probably was a temple altar [2]. A staircase, along which winged sphinxes were placed, provided access to the raised platform with the altar.

Herbert Koch’s reconstruction

Some stylistic comparisons with other similar Italic artifacts found allow us to suggest a possible dating of the podium to the 2nd century BC. Nevertheless, as a whole, the sanctuary is much older.

The study of the pottery

The study of the pottery found in Fondo Patturelli, such as slabs, acroteria, and antefixes, has helped to date the cult that took place there. For example, the observation of the antefixes by decorative series reveals that they were made mainly between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C.

It is thus a reasonable assumption that sacred buildings were already present during the Archaic period. This was the time when Capua, an Etruscan settlement, rivaled the Magno-Greek Cumae; in which the Samnites first settled as servile labor force and later assumed dominance of the city (425 B.C.). The production of the pottery, moreover, attests the continuity of the cult during the Hellenistic period, where a revival of ancient models is observed. The most frequently depicted subjects are graceful female heads, with plant motifs, and a beardless young Heracles. This is a sign that Greek artisans from Cumae worked even in Capua, but the iconographic variability is huge.

A few sets of antefixes from Fondo Patturelli, Museo Provinciale Campano of Capua

The Iovilas

Regarding the historical and architectural reconstruction of the sanctuary, inscriptions in the Oscan language discovered on numerous terracotta or tufa stelae, called Iovilas, appear to be of fundamental importance. Although the phrases of the Iovilas were translated, the semantic meaning is uncertain since the context of their discovery is lost. The inscriptions mostly refer to the celebration of a propitiatory rite, with the consecration of meat or wheat by a person or family group. The text is accompanied by an indication of the date to perform the ceremony and the meddices, the Samnite magistrates of Capua.

Because of one of these Iovilas we know that the sanctuary of the Mother goddesses was located in a sacred wood (luco), which in ancient times was believed to be inhabited by the deity. It is likely that aristocratic families had small ceremonial altars for private use, with roofs, antefixes and other terracottas.

The Mother goddesses of Capua

Even at the time of the first excavations, the discovery of dozens of roughly carved female statues at Fondo Patturelli caused surprise. The tufa sculptures, Matres Matutae (Mother goddesses), appeared different from the aesthetic canons and proportions of classic statuary. Some called them “monstrous looking toads,” but the value of their historical evidence is not the material beauty, but rather the meanings associated with a cult. We do not know what these mothers, reproduced from the late sixth century to the second century B.C. through well-defined and reiterated canons, were used for. However, it is clear that the people of Capua worshipped them in reference to some sacred function of the sanctuary.

Mother goddesses of Capua
A mother at the Museo Archeologico dell’Antica Capua, Santa Maria Capua Vetere

The figurative types of the Mother goddesses of Capua.

By observing the sculptures some clues to their significance can be noticed: mothers are always depicted seated on a throne; their gaze fixed toward the horizon and they are holding one or more swaddled infants in their hands. The women wear a Greek robe (chiton), knotted along the waist by a belt, a cloak and often jewelry. The approximately one hundred and sixty sculptures found at Fondo Patturelli keep the same iconographic setting over time, although evolving in figurative style. Thus, the archaic mothers from the 6th century B.C. have a hieratic and geometric spatiality, distinguished by few decorative elements, and recall coeval Etruscan and Magno-Greek sculptures.

Mother goddesses of Capua
The “archaic” type, Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua

A second type, called “Italic,” comprises the largest number of specimens and can be attributed to the fourth century BC. The mothers are robust, rigid in pose and in the facial and dress traits. They often carry more than one infant, sometimes even numerous, and appear serially reproduced; these mothers came, perhaps, from a common workshop. Greek stylistic features are traceable in some of them, as they are characterized by a greater attention to details.

Finally, there are the Roman-era mothers. There are only three specimens, but the presence of a Latin epigraph in one of them leaves no doubt. This sculpture, moreover, holds a child in a toga, standing next to the woman. It is likely that such Roman mothers belong to the last phase of the cult at Capua Sanctuary.

Mother goddesses of Capua
A mother from the Roman era, Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua

The Mother goddesses of Capua and the Sanctuary Deity

The statues of the Mother goddessess were probably placed along a boundary wall that bordered the sanctuary area, and surrounded the monumental altar with podium. Archaeologists have speculated that the sculptures could be a kind of votive offering to the local deity for successful childbirth. It can be imagined that Capua women went to the shrine to propitiate the birth of their children, and later had the sculptures placed there as thanksgiving.

Today’s naming of the statues, known as Matres Matutae (Mother goddesses), comes from the Roman tutelary deity of morning, and birth, Matuta. However, the cult that took place at Fondo Patturelli was much older than the Roman era, passing through an Etruscan and Samnite period, which is why the identity of the goddess is disputed. Although the simulacrum was probably found in the area of the sanctuary, its identification is still uncertain, mainly because of its poor state of preservation.

The sculpture possibly depicted the deity of Fondo Patturelli Sanctuary, Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua

The sculpture, larger in size than the others, shows the deity seated on a throne, who holds in her hands some symbols, perhaps a dove and a pomegranate. Based on a comparison with similar contemporary cults, she has been recognized as Uni, Spes, Venus Iovia or even the triad Iuppiter Flagius-Iovia Damusa-Vesolia. Further it has been proposed the identification with the goddess Demeter-Kore-Ceres, to whom a prayer engraved on lead, found at Fondo Patturelli, was dedicated. Archaeological excavations, in fact, have revealed the presence of a large necropolis near the sanctuary, and Ceres, the goddess of fertility and the earth, was the one who ideally guaranteed the continuity of life at the moments of transition: childbirth, transformation to adulthood, and death [3].

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] C. Rescigno, Un bosco di madri. Capua, il santuario di fondo Patturelli tra documenti e contesti.

[2] H. Koch, Hellenistische Architekturstücke in Capua. RM, XXII, 1907

[3] M.L. Nava, Le Matres Matutae di Capua, Catalogo Mostra “Mater”, Parma 2015, Palazzo del Governatore

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