The statue depicts the god Apis with a human body and a bull’s head. The arms, the lower part of the body and the legs are missing; however, the god was probably depicted in a standing position holding his right arm in front of him, holding the sceptre or was, symbol of power, conserved in the upper part, and with his left arm by his side. Between the horns there is a solar disc, while around the neck there is a chain of several delicately engraved rows.
The bull Apis was one of the most important deities of Ancient Egypt, and his cult dates back to the first dynastic periods. He was mainly venerated in Memphis, where he was linked to the god Ptah, as his living image and the manifestation of his “glorious soul”.
Only one sacred bull Apis existed on earth as the hypostasis of the god Ptah, born of a virgin cow united with the god Ptah, and he lived within his temple. He could be recognised by various white spots and, as the Greek historian Herodotus recounts, was killed at the age of 25 and, upon his death, the priests searched all the land for the new divine incarnation. When dead, the bull Apis united with the god Osiris in the form of Osiris-Apis (the Serapis of the Hellenistic Age), and was buried at Saqqarah, in the so-called Serapeum, inside a gigantic stone sarcophagus, embalmed and endowed with rich grave goods.
The theology of the god Apis is structured according to a cycle bearing a dual meaning: on the one hand, Apis personifies the strength of the pharaoh, able to govern the cosmos, while on the other he becomes a symbol of Osirian rebirth.
The statue of Apis in the Vatican possibly came from the Canopus of Hadrian’s Villa, but it is not known with certainty if the work was brought to Italy in ancient times or in the eighteenth century. In 1779 the Vatican Museums acquired it from Francesco Piranesi, son of Giovanni Battista, the celebrated engraver who owned one of the most renowned collections of antiquities of the 1700s. It was initially located in the Gallery of the Candelabra, and subsequently displayed in the new Gregorian Egyptian Museum.