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The great statue of Zeus at Olympia was sculpted by the Athenian artist, Pheidias. After completing his work on the Acropolis in 438 BC, Pheidias was commissioned by the Olympian priesthood to design and produce a chryselephantine statue of the god (P. Valavanis). The statue took Pheidias over 12 years to complete, and the result was so astounding that those who saw the statue marveled and placed it among the seven wonders of the world (J. Swaddling). Pheidias is said to have used verses from Homer’s Iliad as inspiration for his masterpiece (H. Schobel). The following lines served as a basis for his interpretation:
The son of Cronos spoke, and bowed his dark brow in assent, and the ambrosial locks waved from the king's immortal head; and he made great Olympus quake. - Iliad, Book 1
The statue itself was destroyed around the 5th century AD; therefore any knowledge of the statue comes to us through second hand descriptions and representations. Luckily, Pausanias described the statue in great detail. The following description of the statue is based on his observations.
The statue sat on a throne in the middle of the temple of Zeus. At over 12 meters high, the statue nearly touched the ceiling. On his head, Zeus wore a crown of olive branches. In his right hand he held the goddess of victory, and in his left an eagle topped scepter. The god was clothed in a great mantle decorated with inlaid animals and lily-flowers. The crown, mantle and sandals were all made of gold. The throne on which the god sat was decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony and ivory. Figures of Victory adorned with legs of the throne, Sphinxes comprised the arms, and on the back of the throne were depictions of the Graces and the Hours: three on either side of Zeus’ head. In front of the statue, Pheidias placed a pool of oil to prevent the statue from being eroded in Olympia’s humid climate (Pausanias).
Although there exists no description of how the statue was completed, the main framework for the figure must have been made of wood (E. Gardiner). The flesh was made from sheets of ivory, and the drapery from sheets of gold. On the bottom of the god’s foot was inscribed a tribute to the statue’s creator: “Pheidias son of Charmides of Athens made me.”
The statue sat in the naos of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia for approximately 800 years. The exact manner of its destruction is the source of debate: some scholars argue that it perished with the temple in the 5th century AD, others argue that it was carried off to Constantinople, where it was destroyed by fire in 475 AD (H. Schobel).
Ashmole, Bernard. Olympia: The Sculptures of the Temple of Zeus. Phaidon Press, London; 1967
Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. Cornell University Press, Ithica; 1996
Gardiner, E. Norman. Olympia: Its History and Remains. Clarendon Press, London; 1925
Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation (by Murray, A.T.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1924
Pausanias. Description of Greece with an English Translation (by Jones, W.H.S.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1918
Schobel, Heinz. The Ancient Olympic Games. D. Van Nostrand Compay, Princeton; 1965
Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games. British Museum Press, London; 2004
Valavanis, Panos. Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece. Getty Publications, Los Angeles; 2004
Yalouris, Nikolaos. Olympia: Altis and Museum. Verlag Schnell & Steiner Munchen, Zurich; 1976