Monday, October 19, 2009

A fanciful reconstruction of Phidias' statue of Zeu

A fanciful reconstruction of Phidias' statue of Zeus, in an engraving made by Philippe Galle in 1572, from a drawing by Maarten van Heemskerck.
Roman Seated Zeus, marble and bronze (restored), following the type established by Phidias (Hermitage Museum)
Coin of Elis illustrating the Olympian Zeus (Nordisk familjebok)

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was made by the Greek sculptor Phidias, circa 432 BC on the site where it was erected in the Temple of Zeus, Olympia, Greece. It was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. For six hundred years after the death of the sculptor, people from all over the civilised world travelled to view it as it was thought to be a misfortune to die without seeing this work.[1]


The seated statue, some 12 metres (39 feet) tall, occupied the whole width of the aisle of the temple built to house it. "It seems that if Zeus were to stand up," the geographer Strabo noted early in the first century BC, "he would unroof the temple."[2] The Zeus was a chryselephantine sculpture, made of ivory and gold-plated bronze. No copy, in marble or bronze, has survived, though there are recognisable but approximate versions on coins of nearby Elis and on Roman coins and engraved gems.[3] A very detailed description of the sculpture and its throne was recorded by the traveller Pausanias, in the second century AD. The sculpture was wreathed with shoots of olive and seated on a magnificent throne of cedarwood, inlaid with ivory, gold, ebony, and precious stones. In Zeus' right hand there was a small statue of crowned Nike, goddess of victory, also chryselephantine, and in his left hand, a sceptre inlaid with gold, on which an eagle perched.[4] Plutarch, in his Life of the Roman general Aemilius Paulus, records that the victor over Macedon, when he beheld the statue, “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person,” while the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.[5]

The date of the statue, in the third quarter of the fifth century BC, long a subject of debate, was confirmed archaeologically by the rediscovery and excavation of Phidias' workshop.

According to a legend, when Phidias was asked what inspired him -- whether he climbed Mount Olympus to see Zeus, or whether Zeus came down from Olympus so that Pheidias could see him -- the artist answered that he portrayed Zeus according to Book One, verses 528 – 530 of Homer's Iliad [6]:

ἦ καὶ κυανέῃσιν ἐπ' ὀφρύσι νεῦσε Κρονίων
ἀμβρόσιαι δ' ἄρα χαῖται ἐπερρώσαντο ἄνακτος
κρατὸς ἀπ' ἀθανάτοιο μέγαν δ' ἐλέλιξεν Ὄλυμπον.
He spoke, the son of Kronos, and nodded his head with the dark brows,
and the immortally anointed hair of the great god
swept from his divine head, and all Olympos was shaken. [7]

The sculptor also was reputed to have immortalised his eromenos, Pantarkes, by carving "Pantarkes kalos" into the god's little finger, and placing a relief of the boy crowning himself at the feet of the statue.[8]

Loss and destruction

The circumstances of its eventual destruction are a source of debate: the eleventh-century Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos[9] recorded the tradition that it was carried off to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in the great fire of the Lauseion, in AD 475.[10] Others argue that it perished with the temple when it burned in AD 425. According to Lucian of Samosata in the later second century, "they have laid hands on your person at Olympia, my lord High-Thunderer, and you had not the energy to wake the dogs or call in the neighbours; surely they might have come to the rescue and caught the fellows before they had finished packing up the swag."[11]

The workshop of Phidias at Olympia.

Phidias' workshop rediscovered

Perhaps the greatest discovery came in 1954-58 with the excavation of the workshop at Olympia where Phidias created the statue. Tools, terracotta moulds and a cup inscribed "I belong to Pheidias" were found here, where the traveller Pausanias said the Zeus was constructed.[12][13][14] This has enabled archaeologists to re-create the techniques used to make the great work and confirm its date.

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