The Statue of Zeus

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Reconstruction: The statue was made by Pheidias around 432 BC and had height about 12 meters (seven times larger than normal).
Zeus was seated on his throne, which was made from bronze, gold, ivory and various precious stones. The throne was decorated by his pupils Panainos and Kolotis, with mythological scenes. The bare body of Zeus was made from ivory and his robe was covered from golden sheets, adorned with lilies and zodiac scenes. His sandals were gold. His head was crowned by a silver olive wreath and the hairs and beard were made out of gold.

In his right hand kept a Nike, made of gold and ivory and in his left a scepter with an eagle on top, made up from all the known metals.
The face was so impressive and it is said that when his nephew (or brother) Panainos asked Pheidias from where he was inspired, he quoted the lines from Homer’s Iliad, that described Zeus brow and hairs.

Pausanias wrote, that when the statue was finished, Pheidias asked Zeus for a sign, if the work was at his liking and the god replied by striking the temple with a thunderbolt, but without destroying anything. At the spot where the thunderbolt had struck, a bronze hydria was placed. It was shame, for a man to die without visiting Olympia to see the statue.

Dio Crysostomos, in a speech given at the temple in 97 AD., said: “If a man, with a heavy heart from grief and sorrow in life, will stand in front of the statue, he will forget all these”.

The statue was at Olympia until 393 AD, afterwards it was taken to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in the great fire of Lauseion, at 476 AD.

Statue of Olympic Zeus, 1954. Salvador Dali

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It truly was a wonder to behold. The building itself, designed in 450 b.C. by the architect Libon, was as tall as a modern four-story building, and the statue filled most of it. Zeus’s head nearly brushed the ceiling, he was so tall. The noted geographer Strabo once commented that if Zeus were to come to life and stand up, “he would unroof the temple.”

This is the statue of the god in whose honor the Ancient Olympic games were held. It was located on the land that gave its very name to the Olympics. At the time of the games, wars stopped, and athletes came from Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and Sicily to celebrate the Olympics and to worship their king of gods: Zeus.

At the ancient town of Olympia, on the west coast of modern Greece, about 150 km west of Athens.

The ancient Greek calendar starts in 776 BC, for the Olympic games are believed to have started that year. The magnificent temple of Zeus was designed by the architect Libon and was built around 450 BC. Under the growing power of ancient Greece, the simple Doric-style temple seemed too mundane, and modifications were needed. The solution: A majestic statue. The Athenian sculptor Pheidias was assigned for the “sacred” task, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s paintings at the Sistine Chapel.

For the years that followed, the temple attracted visitors and worshippers from all over the world. In the second century BC repairs were skillfully made to the aging statue. In the first century AD, the Roman emperor Caligula attempted to transport the statue to Rome. However, his attempt failed when the scaffolding built by Caligula’s workmen collapsed. After the Olympic games were banned in AD 391 by the emperor Theodosius I as Pagan practices, the temple of Zeus was ordered closed.

Olympia was further struck by earthquakes, landslides and floods, and the temple was damaged by fire in the fifth century AD. Earlier, the statue had been transported by wealthy Greeks to a palace in Constantinople. There, it survived until it was destroyed by a severe fire in AD 462. Today nothing remains at the site of the old temple except rocks and debris, the foundation of the buildings, and fallen columns.

Pheidias began working on the statue around 440 BC. Years earlier, he had developed a technique to build enormous gold and ivory statues. This was done by erecting a wooden frame on which sheets of metal and ivory were placed to provide the outer covering. Pheidias’ workshop in Olympia still exists, and is coincidentally — or may be not — identical in size and orientation to the temple of Zeus. There, he sculpted and carved the different pieces of the statue before they were assembled in the temple.

When the statue was completed, it barely fitted in the temple. Strabo wrote:

“.. although the temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct proportions. He has shown Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple.”

Strabo was right, except that the sculptor is to be commended, not criticized. It is this size impression that made the statue so wonderful. It is the idea that the king of gods is capable of unroofing the temple if he stood up that fascinated poets and historians alike. The base of the statue was about 6.5 m (20 ft) wide and 1.0 meter (3 ft) high. The height of the statue itself was 13 m (40 ft), equivalent to a modern 4-story building.

The statue was so high that visitors described the throne more than Zeus body and features. The legs of the throne were decorated with sphinxes and winged figures of Victory. Greek gods and mythical figures also adorned the scene: Apollo, Artemis, and Niobe’s children. The Greek Pausanias wrote:

On his head is a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In his right hand he holds a figure of Victory made from ivory and gold… In his left hand, he holds a sceptre inlaid with every kind of metal, with an eagle perched on the sceptre. His sandals are made of gold, as is his robe. His garments are carved with animals and with lilies. The throne is decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory.

The statue was occasionally decorated with gifts from kings and rulers. the most notable of these gifts was a woollen curtain “adorned with Assyrian woven patterns and Pheonician dye” which was dedicated by the Syrian king Antiochus IV.

Copies of the statue were made, including a large prototype at Cyrene (Libya). None of them, however, survived to the present day. Early reconstructions such as the one by von Erlach are now believed to be rather inaccurate. For us, we can only wonder about the true appearance of the statue — the greatest work in Greek sculpture.

Statue of Zeus somewhere in the Hermitage

Statue of Zeus somewhere in the Hermitage

The statue was made of ivory, a gleaming symbol of the Greeks’ reverence for the head of the gods. Zeus wore a robe and jewels made of gold; also made of gold were the sandals he wore. The throne on which Zeus sat was made of cedarwood and was inlaid with ebony, ivory, gold, and jewels. Zeus held in his left hand a shining scepter, on top of which an eagle perched, ready to take off at any moment and do the god’s bidding. In Zeus’s left hand rested a statue of goddess of victory Nike.

The monument was carved by Phidias, considered the greatest Greek sculptor. Phidias it was who also designed the overpowering statue of Athena that stood in the Parthenon and other, smaller, statues at such landmarks as Marathon and Plataea.

The statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed by 435 B.C. It lasted as an inspiration to and destination for thousands for many years. It resisted many attempts to usurp its authority in the eyes of its visitors. The Roman Emperor Caligula, jealous of its power over his newly conquered “citizens,” ordered it moved to Rome. The scaffolding attached to the statue collapsed, accompanied by, according to legend, a loud laughing noise. The temple and statue survived earthquakes and other natural disasters until it was uprooted and carted off to Constantinople, in A.D. 394. It was lost in an accidental fire in 462.

A few columns of this famous landmark have been uncovered during 19th and 20th Century archaeological digs, but that is all that remains of the once magnificent statue.

ZEUS The King of Gods

In ancient times the Greeks held one of their most important festivals, The Olympic Games, in honour of the King of their gods, Zeus. Like our modern Olympics, athletes travelled from distant lands, including Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Sicily, to compete in the games. The Olympics were first started in 776 B.C. and held at a shrine to Zeus located on the western coast of Greece in a region called Peloponnesus. The games, held every four years, helped to unify the Greek city-states. Sacred truce was declared during the games and wars were stopped. Safe passage was given to all travelling to the site, called Olympia, for the season of the games.

The site consisted of a stadium (for the games) and a sacred grove, or Altis, where temples were located. The shrine to Zeus was simple in the early years, but as time went by and the games increased in importance, it became obvious that a new, larger temple, one worthy of the King of the gods, was needed. Between 470 and 460 B.C., construction on a new temple was started.

The designer was Libon of Elis and his masterpiece, The Temple of Zeus, was completed in 456 B.C.. This temple followed a design used on many large Grecian temples. It was similar to the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The temple was built on a raised, rectangular platform. Thirteen large columns supported the roof along the sides and six supported it on each end. A gently-peaked roof topped the building. The triangles, or “pediments,” created by the sloped roof at the ends of the building were filled with sculpture. Under the pediments, just above the columns, was more sculpture depicting the twelve labours of Heracles, six on each end.
Though the temple was considered one of the best examples of the Doric design because of its style and the quality of the workmanship, it was decided the temple alone was too simple to be worthy of the King of the gods. To remedy this, a statue was commissioned for the interior- a magnificent statue of Zeus that would become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The sculptor chosen for this great task was a man named Phidias. He had already rendered a forty-foot high statue of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon in Athens and had also done much of the sculpture on the exterior of that temple. After his work in Athens was done, Phidias travelled to Olympia to start on what was considered his best work, the statue of Zeus. On arriving he set up a workshop to the west of the temple.

The first archaeological work on the Olympia site was done by a group of French scientists in 1829. They were able to locate the outlines of the temple and found fragments of the sculpture showing the labours of Heracles. These pieces were shipped to Paris where they are still on display today at the Louvre. The next expedition came from Germany in 1875 worked at Olympia for five summers. Over that period they were able to map out most of the buildings there, discovered more fragments of the temple’s sculpture, and located the remains of the pool in the floor that contained the oil for the statue.

In the 1950’s an excavation uncovered the workshop of Phidias which was discovered beneath an early Christian Church. Archaeologists found sculptor’s tools, a pit for casting bronze, clay moulds, modelling plaster and even a portion of one of the elephant’s tusks which had supplied the ivory for the statue. Many of the clay moulds, which had been used to shape the gold plates, bore serial numbers which must have been used to show the place of the plates in the design.

Today the stadium at the site has been restored. Little is left of the temple, though, except a few columns. Of the statue, which was perhaps the most wonderful work at Olympia, all is now gone.

Coin of Elis illustrating the Olympian Zeus (N...

Coin of Elis illustrating the Olympian Zeus





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