The cult of Serapis was perhaps introduced into Egypt by Alexander the Great, and was vigorously promoted by Ptolemy I Soter. The god embodied aspects of many different deities, including the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis and the Greek gods Dionysos and Hades. It was hoped that this new god, whose main temples were at Alexandria and Memphis, would appeal to all the citizens of increasingly cosmopolitan Egypt.
The present bust is a simplified version of the colossal cult-statue of Serapis in Alexandria, sculpted by Bryaxis circa 286-278 B.C. Numerous copies of this famous statue were created in all sizes and materials. The popularity of Serapis and the demand for small-scale images was likely stimulated by the refurbishment of the cult-statue by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138). For a similar bust see no. 125 in Comstock and Vermeule, Greek, Etruscan & Roman Bronzes in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.