The Brazen Table of Bembo & Hieroglyphics

The Bembine Isiac table, a brass, silver and enamel table almost certainly the work of an Egyptianizing Roman sculptor, was stolen at the sack of Rome in 1527. It came into the possession of the Renaissance scholar Pietro Bembo. After various vicissitudes and travels, it came to rest in Turin's Museo Egizio, where it is today. (See L'Egitto Due (in Italian) for a brief history.)


Table of Bembo
The Isiac table of Bembo; from a web page that has, alas, disappeared


An article in Notes & Queries (4th s. ii 40, 328 (October 3, 1868)) may help to shed some light on its history:

The celebrated altar-piece of Isis, which after so many vicissitudes is preserved in the Museum of Turin, has been the object of attention and investigation to various learned men, and the hieroglyphics by which it is covered have been minutely and variously engraved in their several works. For Æneas Vico of Parma, who, I think, was the first who gave his attention to the subject, it was engraved in full size.... Pignorius was the next, in his curious work: —

"Vetustissimæ Tabulæ Æneæ Hieroglyphicis, hoc est sacris Ægyptiorum litteris cælatæ, accurata explicatio," &c. 4to. Venetiis, 1605."

This I have not seen, my own copy being the second edition of the same work, with a different title, which I transcribe: —

"Characteres Ægyptii, hoc est Sacrorum quibus Ægyptii utuntur, simulachrorum, accurata delineatio et explicatio, qua antiquissimarum superstitionum origines, progressiones, ritusque, ad Barbaram, Græcam, et Romanam historiam illustrandam, enarruntur, et multa scriptorum veterum loca explicantur atque emendantur. Autore Laurentio Pignorio Patavino. Accessit ab eodem, Auctarium, in quo ex antiquis Sigillis Gemmisque selectiora quædam ejus generis, et veterum hereticorum amuleta exhibentur. Omnia in æs pulcherrime incisa, et in lucem emissa per Joannem Theodorum, et Joannem Israelem De Bry, fratres germanos. 4to. Francofurti, M.DC.VIII."

Besides the engravings interspersed in the text, this volume has fifteen pages of engrave hieroglyphical representations, and forty-three leaves of explanatory letterpress. The theory of Pignorius, who sees in the mystic figures merely the representation of the ceremonies of a sacrifice after the Ægyptian rite, is advocated with equal brevity and learning, and is held to be the most simple and probable. His little work reached yet a third edition, in which the title again underwent a change. It now appeared as —

Mensa Isiaca, quâ Sacrorum apud Ægyptios ratio ac simulacra subjectis tabulis æneis simul exhibentur et explicantur. 4to. Amsterdam, 1669."

Of this the Rev. Hartwell Horne says that it is "The best edition of a most curious work. Pignorius is allowed to have succeeded best in deciphering the meaning of the mystic table of Isis." (Introd. to Bibliog., p. 460.)

... Mr Horne appears not to have been aware of the [earliest edition] of 1605, as he erroneously states the first to have appeared at Frankfort. I believe, however, that so far as regards the text, the one is a reprint of the other.

The subject of the Isiac table is further discussed by Kircher, in his Œdipus Ægyptiacus (Romæ, 1652-4, 4 vols., folio), by Montfaucon, Yablonski, and Caylus, in whose several works engraved representations will also be found. Warburton considered it the most modern monument of ancient Egypt, and Champollion regarded it as the work of an artist who had no esoteric acquaintance with the mystic rites of the goddess. Since the expression of this opinion, the Isiac tablet has lost much of the interest with which it was formerly regarded.

I have also before me —

"The New Pantheon; or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, &c., explained in manner entirely new, &c., by Samuel Boyse, A.M. The fifth edition, by William Cooke, A.M., &c. 8vo. Salisbury, 1777."

Here are given three plates identical with the engravings of De Bry in the work of Pignorius. The explanation which accompanies these plates is prefaced by the statement, that

"These three following plates — viz. of Isis, Osiris, and Orus, were taken originally from the Bembine or Isiac table in the Bodleian. This table or altar-piece is of brass, full of hieroglyphics inlaid in silver and enamel, which constitute an epitome of the whole Egyptian theology. It has been described, copied, and elaborately explained by the learned Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, in his Œdipus Ægyptiacus, vol. iii. p. 80 et seq. Romæ, 1654-7. Hor. Apoll."

Here there appears to be something which, to me at least, requires explanation. The table preserved at Turin is the "Bembine," so called from its having been purchased by Cardinal Bembo from a locksmith who had bought it at the sack of Rome in 1525 [sic]. There can hardly be two Bembine Isiac Tables, with similar inscriptions. Is then the Bodleian table a copy of that at Turin?


This page is maintained at the University of Chicago by James Eason, who welcomes comments, criticism, and suggestions.