the Statue of Zeus at Olympia
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
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 Lincoln Memorial Exterior
According to accounts, the statue was
located at the western end of the temple. It was 22 feet wide and some 40
feet tall. The figure of Zeus was seated on an elaborate throne. His head
nearly grazed the roof. The historian Strabo wrote, "...although the
temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having
appreciated the correct proportions. He has depicted 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..."
Others who viewed that temple disagreed
with Strabo and found the proportions very effective in conveying the
god's size and power. By filling nearly all the available space, the
statue was made to seem even larger than it really was.
In its right hand the statue held the
figure of Nike (the goddess of victory) and in its left was a sceptre
"inlaid with every kind of metal..." which was topped with an eagle.
Perhaps even more impressive than the statue itself was the throne made
out of gold, ebony, ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Carved into the
chair were figures of Greek gods and mystical animals, like the sphinx.
The figure's skin was composed of ivory
and the beard, hair and robe of gold. Construction was by the use of gold
and ivory plates attached to a wooden frame. Because the weather in
Olympia was so damp, the statue required care so that the humidity would
not crack the ivory. For this purpose it was constantly treated with oil
kept in a special pool in the floor of the temple. It is said that for
centuries the decedents of Phidias held the responsibility for this
maintenance of the statue.
Besides the statue, there was little
inside the temple. The Greeks preferred the interior of their shrines to
be simple. The feeling it gave was probably very much like the Lincoln
Memorial (Left above and right below) or Jefferson Memorial in
Washington, D.C. with their lofty marble columns and single, large
Copies of the statue were made, but none
survive, though pictures found on coins give researchers clues about its
The Lincoln Memorial Interior
Despite his magnificent work at Olympia,
Phidias ran into trouble when he returned home. He was a close friend with
Pericles, who ruled the Athens. Enemies of Pericles, unable to strike at
the ruler directly, attacked his friends instead. Phidias was accused of
stealing gold meant for the statue of Athena. When that charge failed to
stick, they claimed he had carved his image, and that of Pericles into the
sculpture found on the Parthenon. This would have been improper in the
Greeks' eyes and Phidias was thrown into jail where he died awaiting
His masterpiece lived on, though, at the
temple in Olympia until 392 A.D. when the Olympics were abolished by
Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, a Christian who saw the games as a pagan
rite. After that the statue was moved by wealthy Greeks to the city of
Constantinople where it survived until destroyed by fire in 462 A.D..
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 workstop 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