Historically, variable and transient sources have both surprised astronomers and provided new views of the heavens. Here we report the discovery of an optical transient in the outskirts of the lenticular galaxy Messier 85 in the Virgo cluster. With a peak absolute R magnitude of -12, this event is distinctly brighter than novae, but fainter than typeIa supernovae (which are expected in a population of old stars in lenticular galaxies). Archival images of the field do not show a luminous star at that position with an upper limit in the g filter of about -4.1mag, so it is unlikely to be a giant eruption from a luminous blue variable star. Over a two-month period, the transient source emitted radiation energy of almost 1047erg and subsequently faded in the optical sky. It is similar to, but six times more luminous at peak than, an enigmatic transient in the galaxy M31 (ref. 1). A possible origin of M85OT2006-1 is a stellar merger. If so, searches for similar events in nearby galaxies will not only allow study of the physics of hyper-Eddington sources, but also probe an important phase in the evolution of stellar binary systems.